Planning Your Novel With Janice Hardy

I’m excited to share a post today from guest blogger Janice Hardy, author of the teen fantasy fiction trilogy, The Healing Wars. She’s also the founder of Fiction University, a writing instructor and a popular speaker at conferences and workshops. Janice, thanks so much for sharing this excerpt from your new book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Author Janice Hardy

Is Your Novel Character-Driven or Plot-Driven? 

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writers (and novels) typically fall into one of two camps: character driven or plot driven, If you’re the kind of writer who comes up with characters first and figures out the plot as you write, then you might find it frustrating to try to work out a plot first. Just like a plot-driven writer might find it difficult to develop the characters first. Knowing which you are makes going forward much easier.

If your idea (or writing style) leans more toward one side than the other, don’t worry. Writing is a process, not a fill-in-the-blanks, one-size-fits-all template.

Are You Character-Driven?

Character driven means the focus is more on the character and her internal journey than the external issues of the plot. This doesn’t mean plot isn’t important, but the issues the character deals with are personal and often affect only that person or the people closest to her.

The main point of the novel is to show character growth and have the protagonist learn a valuable lesson about herself that allows her to be a better person (or points out a fatal flaw that causes her doom in a darker tale. Not every novel has to have a happy ending.)

Character-driven ideas typically manifest as a character with a problem first. This person has an issue that is central to the story and the journey to understand that issue is at the heart of the conflict. What that character is going to do isn’t always clear at first, because the journey and the emotional story arc is what matters more.

For example:

  • A woman with a fear of commitment must learn to let others in.
  • A selfish boy must learn to think about others.
  • A workaholic must learn to take time for family.

 

How this works with a plot: These problems are all internal, even though they likely have external problems due to these issues. A fear of commitment might translate to being alone and unhappy, selfishness could lead to having no friends, and working all the time often ends in divorce.

But the end goal isn’t as simple as “find someone to marry” or “make a friend” or “quit a job.” Those goals won’t solve the underlying problem until the character goes through her emotional journey. There will be goals and problems that allow the protagonist to grow and learn what she needs to learn to achieve a specific goal, and that’s where the focus lies.

 

Key Elements of a Character-Driven Novel

  • The protagonist is responsible for what happens to her and acts to make the novel happen.
  • Internal forces affect the protagonist.
  • Personal growth and emotional change of the protagonist are major parts of the resolution of the novel.

 

Are You Plot-Driven?

Plot-driven means the focus is more on the external elements forcing the characters to act than on the personal journey. The stakes are frequently higher and matter more on a larger scale. This doesn’t mean the characters are unimportant, but solving the problem is more important than character growth or lessons learned, though characters can grow and learn even in plot-driven novels.

Plot-driven ideas typically manifest as a situation or problem first. An interesting situation has occurred and someone is going to have to deal with it. Who that someone is might not matter at first, because resolving the problem is what matters more.

For example:

  • Terrorists are planning to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge
  • A plane goes down in the wilderness and a survivor has to make it to safety
  • A protest at a factory turns into a riot

 

How this works with characters: These problems are all external, even though each will focus around a character who will likely have personal issues to deal with as she resolves her problem. Stopping terrorists entails personal risk, survival in the wilderness draws on untapped strength or knowledge, dealing with a riot requires commitment and diplomacy.

But the end goal isn’t “face your fears to stop a terrorist” or “find your inner strength” or “redeem yourself for a terrible mistake.” The novel won’t be about the growth or lessons learned, even though the protagonist will likely change a little over the course of the novel as she resolves the external problem.

 

Key Elements of a Plot-Driven Novel

External forces trigger the plot and cause the protagonist to act by reacting to that event.

Resolving the external problem matters more than a personal change in the character.

 

Are You Both?

It is possible to have both—a strong protagonist with a compelling emotional journey who is put into an interesting situation that needs to be resolved. Through resolving the plot problem, the emotional journey of the protagonist is experienced and achieved.

This is a powerful combination and it’s not a bad thing to aim for with every novel. But don’t worry if your idea leans more to one side than the other at this stage. You’ll have plenty of time to develop both sides—character and plot—if you want to do both.

For example:

  • An FBI agent faces his own seditious past while trying to prevent a terrorist attack.
  • A timid girl discovers her own inner strengths when her plane crashes in the wilderness.
  • A workaholic realizes the value of family when a protest at work turns into a riot.

 

How this works with both: These all have external problems that are made more difficult by internal issues. Stopping a terrorist exposes a dark secret, survival in the wilderness triggers a realization of personal strength, a protest turns deadly and reveals what matters most. The external end goal is the catalyst that forces the protagonist to change internally. The novel is about the growth and lessons learned as the protagonist resolves the external problem. The two sides work in tandem to craft a plot arc and a character arc that depend on each other.

 

Key Elements of a Plot- and Character-Driven Novel

  • External forces trigger the plot and affect the protagonist in a personal way that forces her to act.
  • The protagonist can’t avoid the external problem because it would have serious repercussions on an internal issue.
  • Resolving the external problem is what will allow the protagonist to resolve her internal issue.

 

Books don’t have to be fully plot driven or fully character driven. These are just terms for common writing styles that can help you figure out how to approach writing a novel. Don’t feel you have to be one or the other or your novel won’t work, but if you do know you think a certain way (plots first or characters first), that can be an asset in the planning process.

*Excerpted from my book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure

Where do you fall on the character vs. plot scale?

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.

To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. One entry per blog, but you can enter on every stop on the tour. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.

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Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.

Comments

  1. Janice Hardy says:

    Thanks so much for having me!

  2. Carla Ketner says:

    Thanks for another thought provoking post. It’s always helpful to think about a story from various perspectives, and your posts challenge me to do that.

  3. Great post, Janice. I tend towards character-driven story but that often leads to plotting problems as I try to give my characters external conflicts to overcome.

  4. Your Fiction University website has been such a help to me as I’ve worked on my first novels. Thanks for all the inspiring and informative content!

  5. Tom Sullivant says:

    I like it. I think I’m more in the plot driven camp with character support. Definitely not a fan of mushy characters, though. Still, these thoughts and points will help me maintain perspective as I go into my final revision, I hope. thanks Janice.

    Ts

  6. Nice post. I always enjoy your examples as they are clear and easy to follow.

  7. Kathleen Grzanich says:

    Janice,

    This is great! I still have a lot to learn about a character’s journey and growth/change and such when it comes to character driven stories. I prefer plot driven stories when it comes to reading or even in writing my own stories. You are always so much help, and you make things a lot easier to understand. Thanks again for taking the time to share your insight and for making these things easier to understand.

    Thank you so much!

    Kathleen

  8. My stories are definitely character driven, but as I grow as a writer I’d like to do more with plot-driven and hybrids.

  9. Kate Scot says:

    I feel the strongest books are those that have both strongly developed plots and character arcs, it’s really magical when it comes together. I’m aiming for that too, but it’s hard.

  10. Orlando Llanes says:

    Excellent articulation on the difference between Plot Driven and Character Driven, as well as how to mix both. Helped me fill in the missing link for a story structure I want to implement.

  11. Vahlaeity says:

    Having a character and plot driven approach seems to com naturally, if not easily, to me. Whenever I’m stuck it usually means one of these elements has been neglected. Examining how one influences the other often helps move my story forward. Thank you for explaining thins so succinctly.

  12. Thanks Janice for the comparison of character vs plot driven novels. Very informative and helpful.

  13. I always come up with some twisted character first, then scramble to find the external plot.

  14. JC Martell says:

    Never truly understood this. Usually read “If your story is character-driven…do this or do that”. Now I know what “this and that” to think about. Thanks.