Saturday, February 15, 2014

How to tell the difference between a character-driven story and a plotted story

Recently I got a question (which doesn't mean I don't have other questions, lol--just that I'm still trying to play catch-up and it's one hell of a flu season)

I struggle with plot driven vs character driven and what the difference is. Even when creating an outline I cannot tell which one it is. Any examples from popular books would help.

I don't read as many popular books as I should, so I'm going to use popular movies that have a plotted and character-driven version, because it's easier to see. And for that, let's talk about Rambo, one of my favorite series.

The first movie in the series (there are four) is First Blood, loosely based on a David Morrell book of the same name. Loosely based on the David Morrell book of the same name, it’s the psychological study of a Vietnam vet. In the movie, Rambo is a drifter. Everything that happens in First Blood builds on his backstory and who he became because of that backstory. When he heads up into the mountains and does his whole poncho-survivalist thing, it’s understandable because he was Special Forces. It’s something he was trained to do. When he refuses to leave town, it’s because he was a former prisoner of war and he was controlled for a long time, which means he refuses to let anyone control or confine him.

All Rambo's actions are based on who he is (a former Green Beret, ex-prisoner of war), what happened to him (he survived torture and confinement), what he became (a veteran with extreme post-traumatic stress disorder), and what’s happening to him (in the story) because of that.

Because he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese he refused to leave town when told to get out which made him turn around and walk back in, which made the sheriff arrest him, which made the jailor try to give him a haircut and shave him with a straight razor which triggers Rambo’s PSTD which gets the story going.

While the first Rambo movie is character-driven, the later Rambo movies are plot-driven. Although Rambo is still at the center of each movie, he could easily be replaced by pretty much any action hero from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Jason Statham because the scriptwriters forgot the simple incident Morell based Rambo’s reactions on—Rambo was a POW. And because he was a POW, he had PSTD and control issues.
Rambo’s time in the POW camp was the start of his transformational arc. Everything that Rambo does—all his actions and reactions, circle back to Vietnam.

  • When the sheriff tells Rambo to leave town, Rambo refuses to go because he won’t be told what to do ever again.
  •  When the sheriff puts Rambo in jail (behind bars) it triggers Rambo’s post-traumatic stress syndrome.
  •  When Rambo’s jailors get ready to cut his hair, it makes him flashback to prison (his pertinent back story) and being tortured.
  •  Because he was Special Forces in Vietnam, he reacts to that trigger with violence and escapes into the wilderness

*A character-driven story is pushed by back story (and most of the time (although not always) has a transformational character arc).

*The external plot is silly-simple (they tried to force him to do things that went against his back story and he reacted--violently).


The Descendents--the hero had a indifferent relationship with his wife. Now that she's dying, he's trying to find out who she was, and reconnect with his daughters.

  • If he hadn't drifted away from his wife, she never would have had an affair
  • He never would have felt obligated to find his wife's lover (to allow him to say goodbye)
  • His wife's affair alienates their teenaged daughter because she thinks it's wrong that her mom is betraying her dad, which opens a line of communication between Matt and his daughter, which allows him to heal the rift between them.
Simple line of action: Matt needs to find his wife's lover so he can say goodbye before they pull the plug.

Just like in First Blood, there's a lot going on, but the two movies aren't pointed at anything. Rambo just wants to be left alone. He's not trying to do anything. In the same way the Descendents wasn't really about finding Elizabeth's lover. It's more about the bad choices you make in life, and making good choices.

There is no major goal. They're just stories about people. Sometimes the people are exciting and blow things up, and sometimes they just walk around with their kids.

Let's look at Rambo III. According to the 1990 Guinness book of records, Rambo 3 had the dubious distinction of being the most violent movie ever made with 221 acts of violence, 70 explosions, and over 108 characters killed on-screen. In it Colonel Trautman asks Rambo to help him supply the rebels in Afghanistan (at the time the Soviets were the bad guys). Rambo says no, Trautman goes by himself and is kidnapped, and Rambo takes down the entire Soviet army with minor help from the Afghan rebels in order to get him back. Who can forget that iconic screen shot of Rambo shooting down a Soviet helicopter with an explosive arrow, all that heart-thumping music and Rambo in his tank (and black wife-beater "with" headband!) surviving a direct collision with a helicopter?

Was there any sign of Rambo's PSTD or anti-authoritarian stance? No, because it doesn't matter. "Rambo" doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is getting Troutman back and blowing up as many things as possible. There's a solid goal (get Troutman back, destroy as many Soviets as possible), but the character needs to be flexible (adaptable?) to get the story from pt A (Rambo turning Troutman down because he wants to meditate in peace) to pt B (blowing up the Soviets and bagging 108 kills).

The story doesn't flow out of character and back story,  it flows "toward" the goal. The story is plotted without consideration for character.

Sometimes stories are a combination of character-driven and plotted (a lot of urban fantasies are like this, and so is romantic suspense, and some thrillers and mysteries).  Character-driven stories can push a strong plot if the story events and goal also flow out of the character's back story.

In Die Hard, John McClane is estranged from his wife, Holly and goes to the Nakatomi Christmas party (where he hopes they'll get together again). Unfortunately terrorists take over the building, and McClane has to take them down in order to get his wife back. Fortunately, he's got some great back story.

The plot is still simple (get his wife back alive), but it's amped up with lots of explosions, great villains and amazing stunts. You can dress it up or down, but the difference between Die Hard and Rambo III is simply motivation.

By Rambo III are Trautman and Rambo friends? In First Blood, Trautman says he trained Rambo, in Rambo 2 he tells Rambo to go back to Vietnam. By number 3, is Rambo at the point where he'd blow up the Soviet army to get Trautman back?

Yeah, right.

In Die Hard, it's hard to ignore the fact that McClane wants Holly back. He flew (despite hating planes) cross country, and he's willing to suffer a posh, snarky Christmas party to be with her. He loves Holly and he has motivation with a capital "M". He has a goal (get Holly out of there), his back story supports his motivation, and the story events work for who he is and showcase his strengths and weaknesses.

so how can you tell what's what?

If your character's motivation to get through the story or do whatever you want him to do flows out of who he is (in back story), then most likely it's character-driven. If you think you're going to need a little less input from the peanut galley to get your character from beginning to end, it's most likely plotted. And I'd suggest either thinning your character out a little so he can fit into the story, or finding a story that fits the character.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jody. Thanks for attending Bryan's March event yesterday. I learned a lot from your comments. Also purchased your book Practical Emotional Structure. It is AWESOME. My question, concerns this post however. Can a book be both plot and character driven? Or does it usually fall into one of those categories. Thanks for taking the time to answer. Jan

Jodi Henley said...

Hi Jan!! Thanks for waiting (if you "are" waiting and didn't get tired and go away :( )

Thanks you!! I love ES. It's my second favorite workshop (now retired, lol)

The answer is yes. A book can be plot and character-driven, and trust's a really long answer that will probably take two weeks and a couple hundred pages to explain in a way that will lock into place in...oh, about a minute. And that's the problem with talking about intangibles.

The short answer is that some stories like romantic suspense and (character-driven) thrillers and pnrs, and even the #l Lady's Detective Agency are stories that are plotted with the character's arc in mind. so...oh, say if you wanted a spoiled princess with a thing for drawing dinosaurs to lose everything, end up a pauper, build an army and take over the world--that's easy enough to do.

Rambo is super character-driven because nothing really happens. I mean, it's exciting, but he doesn't accomplish anything or have a transformational arc. He simply shows facets of his character to drive the story. It's more like an unpeeling.

However, if you've seen Cinderella Man, that's a character-driven story that is plotted out. His change (when he loses everything) creates the motivation to drive him through anything life can throw at him. There's more than enough motivation there to support "any" story.

You want him to invent a time machine to take his kids into utopia? He can do that. You want him to run for President? He can do that too.

The key is motivation.

One man with a spoon and enough motivation can reduce a mountain to a hole in the ground if he wants the gold inside it badly enough.

And, just a thought--but if you aren't on my arc list (for free books as they come out?) you're welcome to send me an email at jodi henley @ gmail. com

The arc book will probably be the longest in coming since it's so much bigger than the others. But you might also enjoy the stuff on backstory and filters. :)

And thanks for reading my blog!!!

Jacob Weber said...

I just found you blog from a Google search on "character-driven." I've been thinking about the subject a lot. I'm an aspiring writer (well, I just got a piece accepted for publication next month, so I guess it's no longer just aspirational, but whatevs), and I run across a lot of journals who claim to want character-driven fiction. It always seems odd to me, since I feel all fiction is somewhere on a spectrum between many drivers: character, plot, theme, setting. Some are pretty far toward one end. There are "extreme" character pieces: Lost in Translation; Extreme plot stories: Rat Race; Extreme thematic pieces: Harrison Bergeron, Jesus' parables; and even extreme setting pieces, like any science fiction where the main idea is to contend with a futuristic world that offers different conditions from ours. But generally, it seems like almost any story has multiple drivers, and I wouldn't ONLY want to read fiction that leans heavily toward the character-driven end.

Bosire said...

Depth you need; depth you find here!

Anonymous said...

This seems late, almost a year later, but this piece was great. I met First Blood author at a conference, great guy. The more recent Descendents movie was moving. If it's OK, I am going to reference this - your blog - in a blog.