I’d like to take the opportunity to write about character-driven versus plot-driven scenes in stories. Except in the case of allegories, perhaps, character-driven stories are preferred because the characters in a plot-driven story are less believable due to the fact that they are nothing more vehicles to drive the plot along. However, even in character-driven stories, there can be plot-driven scenes. What do I mean by that?

Well, let’s say that you have a character that detests violent activity, and you decide that at some point this character must be put into a situation where he/she may have to act violently in order to prevent some undesirable outcome. That’s a plot-driven scene. You’ve decided it must happen and have placed your character in the scene.

This is not bad or wrong, but there are definite traps you need to avoid now. Let me illustrate this with an example from Brisingr. Note that this contains spoilers for those who haven’t read the first third or so of the book. If you don’t care, read on.

While fleeing the Empire’s territory, Eragon and Arya are set upon by a group of soldiers. They attempt to avoid a conflict by posing as travelers, but this doesn’t work and as events escalate, the two of them end up killing the soldiers. One of the soldiers sees how badly the fight is going, drops his weapon and attempts to flee. Eragon pursues, and the young man begs for his life, pleading with his pursuer for mercy. Eragon kills him—and Arya’s main complaint about the whole thing is why couldn’t Eragon have saved them some trouble and killed the similarly unarmed Sloan earlier. He says it’s because the soldier was a threat and Sloan was not. Arya is subsequently amazed by his wise understanding of moral principles.

Here are the problems with the scene: First, there is no reason for the conflict to take place at all. Eragon was able to avoid being spotted by some soldiers earlier by using a spell to become invisible. Arya is also a spellcaster and so should be able to do the same (and even if she didn’t know the spell, there’s no reason Eragon couldn’t make both of them invisible). Second, there’s no reason Eragon couldn’t have pursued a nonfatal alternative. He put Sloan to sleep; surely he could do the same to this boy, giving them a lead in the case of intended treachery. Spellcasters are able to alter people’s memories; surely Eragon or Arya could’ve put it in his head that someone else killed the soldiers and then fled in a different direction, thus throwing off pursuit even when he does manage to relate what he believes has happened. Third, even assuming he just lets the soldier go, what’s he going to do? He can’t tell anyone until he gets to a town, and Eragon and Arya travel at a much faster rate—they’d be far ahead of any pursuit brought about by this act of mercy. Eragon may say this soldier is a threat, but it’s simply not true. Indeed, this whole scene has led many a person to the conclusion that Eragon murders the young man because it’s the most convenient option available.

I disagree with that conclusion. What I believe happened is Paolini wanted a scene wherein circumstances forced Eragon to kill an unarmed person so that he could use it as a contrast to the situation with Sloan to demonstrate why it had been the right choice to let Sloan live but not this other person. Again, this is not a bad idea, but, as you can see, he fell into the traps of the plot-driven scene.

Trap 1: There’s no reason for your character to be in that scene. Yes, just like Eragon and Arya should’ve easily bypassed the entire conflict with the soldiers, you need to make sure that your character has a reason to be in the scene you’re writing. Remember the previous example of the character that detests violence? Such a person would not usually be found in areas where violence is likely to crop up. Put some thought into why your character is there or why this violent situation has arisen somewhere where your character would naturally be.

Trap 2: Your character acts out of character because the scene demands it. This is widely known as an “It’s In The Script” moment. Eragon considers very few alternatives (he only considers that the man is too slow to travel with them and thus they can’t take him prisoner, and that the soldier’s True Name Oath would prevent him from being disloyal to Galbatorix should he be let go). He doesn’t consider restraining the boy with any method magical or mundane. He doesn’t consider messing with his memories of the event. He doesn’t even consider whether it would really be so detrimental just to let him go. This is because the scene requires Eragon to kill the unarmed person as a contrast to Sloan, so Eragon has to act out of character to accomplish it. So, remember the character that detests violence? If a violent situation starts developing, the first thing this character would think of is escape, so if there’s an easy way for him/her to escape, you have to rewrite the scene.

There you have it. If you want a plot-driven scene in your story, this is fine, but you must avoid those traps. There needs to be a reason that your character is in the scene beyond “He/She needs to be in the scene for it to take place.” While in the scene, your character must still act in character. If your character behaving in-character would ruin what you want the scene to accomplish (as I believe it would in Eragon’s case), then, for the love of all good writing, rewrite the scene until you can get it to work with your character acting in-character.

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Comment

  1. OverlordDan on 30 January 2009, 08:12 said:

    Great article! I always hate when a protagonist leaves out a simple soloution that can solve the problem. Its pretty much the main reason I don’t play computer RPGs, they never go for an obvious answer, or if they even give a brief nod to that they cover it up with a flimsy excuse.

  2. Juniper on 30 January 2009, 10:06 said:

    Thanks. I’ve been tirading against the soldier’s death for a few days now to friends (and even online). The whole thing was so avoidable that…it was definitely pre-meditated bad writing, first degree.

  3. Asahel on 30 January 2009, 15:39 said:

    Thank you both for the comments. The main trouble occurs when the author has such a great scene in mind that characterization gets momentarily punted off to the side. If you don’t catch yourself (or have a friend help catch you), you’ll end up with a scene that makes no sense in terms of your characters—or worse, makes no sense in terms of any logic or reason.

    Anyway, I hope plenty of people find this helpful. I have at least a few more ideas for writing tips, and will post them later.

  4. SubStandardDeviation on 30 January 2009, 16:06 said:

    Hm. That’s an interesting way to think of it, though I disagree that Eragon is acting out of character. He doesn’t really have an established character (although “sociopathic” is a good start) beyond what the plot requires him to say/do/think. Which I suppose was your point.

    If your character behaving in-character would ruin what you want the scene to accomplish (as I believe it would in Eragon’s case), then, for the love of all good writing, rewrite the scene until you can get it to work with your character acting in-character.
    Or – if you are intent on a plot-driven approach – you could scrap the character and rewrite his/her personality from the bottom up. Or use a different character in a similar scene.

  5. Beldam on 13 July 2011, 12:42 said:

    If your character behaving in-character would ruin what you want the scene to accomplish (as I believe it would in Eragon’s case), then, for the love of all good writing, rewrite the scene until you can get it to work with your character acting in-character.
    Or – if you are intent on a plot-driven approach – you could scrap the character and rewrite his/her personality from the bottom up. Or use a different character in a similar scene.

    Or! You can make it so the character, forced into whatever situation they are, has to force themselves over their beliefs to survive—a sort of do or die thing. If it marks a turning point in the characterization or something of the like, I’m sure it could be pretty cool, especially if it was something of a slippery slope. But if the new characterization is abandoned shortly thereafter, or the action defies logic any which way, then yeah, a rewrite is in order.

  6. Jason on 21 May 2012, 04:13 said:

    Spoiler Alert

    Executing a combination between character-driven and plot-driven. Most end of the world movies rely on plot to develop the characters. In Deep Impact, the characters are influenced the make adjustments due to a comet approaching Earth.

    We have a comet and the end of the world representing two external influence. Moreover, the ensemble cast make moral decisions related to the plot, though their moral values are written to humanize them. As a result, the moviegoers care about the characters. Most end of the world movies deal with character-driven and plot-driven stories.

    Knowing is another plot-driven and character driven movie. John rejects religion because his wife dies in a fire. Discovering the world will end and witnessing Alien beings land on Earth change his belief system. In the end, John makes a moral decision he would have rejected at the beginning. Whereas the plot – the end of the world – alert John, knowing the truth and experiencing tragic events change him in the end (character arc).

  7. Tim on 21 May 2012, 04:24 said:

    We have a comet and the end of the world representing two external influence.

    Um, no, one external influence. The comet is just the reason why there is going to be the end of the world.