Character Driven versus Plot Driven, by Cath Jones

When you’re writing a picture book, have you ever considered whether your story is ‘plot driven’ or ‘character driven’? It’s quite possible that you’ve never really thought about this. Perhaps you’re not even one hundred percent sure what these terms mean. Decades ago, when I first started writing stories for children, I had not even heard of ‘Plot driven’ or ‘character driven’. I just wrote instinctively.

This is how I now define the two concepts:

  • If you tend to focus on events, then the chances are your story is ‘plot driven’.

  • But if your character changes or develops during the story, or they come to a greater understanding of themselves, then your story is probably ‘character driven’. Ask yourself, is the personality of my character moving the story forward? 

When I came to write this blog post, I realised I had no idea whether I was a plot driven or character driven writer! So I thought about some of my own stories.

My next picture book, ‘Slug Love’ (publishing June 2022) follows a pretty classic plot structure so does that mean I am plot driven? Not necessarily! 

The plot may follow a pretty classic structure of problem to be solved, situation worsening, all is lost moment and a twist ending but all the action is driven by the optimism and determination of Slug. So that sounds like my story is definitely character driven.

What clinched the answer for me was the realisation that, when people asked me what my story was about, I always answered:

“Oh it’s about an optimistic slug,”

Rather than describing the plot or the problem, I always described Slug, the central character. And from the moment I started writing ‘Slug Love’, Slug was the star of the story, not the plot! In fact, I really struggled to get the plot to work. It took me literally years to reach the final draft.

‘Bonkers About Beetroot was my first traditionally published picture book.’ When I set out, it was definitely plot driven. There was a problem to be solved and that was the plot. Simple.

However, what really makes this picture book (apart from Chris Jevon’s stunning illustrations of course) are the two main characters. At the heart of the story is an optimistic and determined Zebra and a pessimistic, rather grumpy penguin. If I had not populated a classic plot structure with two larger than life characters, the story would have been pretty uninspiring. And I will admit that the original germ of an idea for this story was a purple zebra and the title. The plot definitely came later.

But let’s see what other picture book authors think about character versus plot. I asked a few to consider their own books and writing style. Did they think they were plot driven or character driven?

Frances Tosdevin, author of the 2021 picture book THE BEAR AND HER BOOK (illustrated by Sophia O’Connor) said:

“The Bear and her Book started off as plot-driven because I wanted to have lots of interesting visual possibilities in the text. But I do feel that the bear's character drove the plot, too— her kindness came out the more I got to know her. The creatures she meets (hopefully) all have their own personalities, too. 

However, in general, I do try to have a mix of both plot and character in my stories, as I think they are quite interdependent, and also somewhat necessary!”

I’m sure many of you will relate to what picture book author Emily Ann Davison said:

“I do sometimes try to plot a story that is one or the other but most stories just fall out of my brain.” 

Jill Atkins, author of the 2021 picture book ‘Raccoon and the Hot Air Balloon’ and over 150 other books explained:

“In Raccoon’s case I began by wanting to write a story about a raccoon who was adventurous but kind. Then the plot fell into place... But sometimes the plot just comes to me and the characters develop from that.” 

Lou Treleaven author of eight picture books, said:

“I think I'm probably plot driven but I find that in picture books the plot is so bound up with the character that you can't really separate them. The character IS the plot! For example in the Snugglewump the fact that the Snugglewump is just a piece of fabric compared to the other toys means it's going to feel inferior and unloved, so it had to be that character to make the plot work. But I've just realised that in my last few books I have started with the title and worked from there, and the title is a microcosm of the book, eg The Knight Who Might was a title that came to me when I was playing around with words, and that of course invokes the idea of a clumsy knight, and then the knight needs a challenge to see if he can get over his clumsiness. The fact that he believes he is the Knight Who Might against all the odds shows his self belief and determination. Again, the character is the plot. So maybe it would be better to say my writing is concept-driven!” 

Personally, I think on the whole, you need BOTH a clear plot and brilliant characters. If the reader doesn’t care about what happens to the characters, it doesn’t matter how amazing the plot is. To write a brilliant picture book, I think you need to be a master of both plot and character. To create a great story one needs to find a balance between plot and character. 

So, now you know! Do you set out with a great plot or some brilliant characters? Are you plot driven or character driven? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Cath is the author of scores of early readers, junior and middle grade fiction and a couple of quirky picture books. She’s passionate about diversity and strong female characters. She’s particularly proud of The Best Wedding Gift, a story featuring a child with two mums. Her life is dominated by vegetable growing, picking up litter and swimming in the sea. Cath lives in Kent with her wife and a spoilt rescue cat. 

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