It’s an odd thing to ask, because the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But which should be the focus of a compelling story? Does a complex plot negate the need to concentrate on character? Do intense characters provide enough motivation to complete a book regardless of meandering plot threads?
At Inspired Quill, the focus is on character-driven stories. Personalities drive plot events via their decisions, actions and individual motivations. It makes for more natural path transitions, especially in fantasy quests or dramas; whether or not the characters are going to take a certain direction, or succeed, becomes part of the thrill of following their path. It’s not only about what happens next, it becomes just as intriguing to wonder how they’re going to deal with whatever situations arise.
If you focus ostensibly on the plot, (that is, the events that you want to occur instead of how they come about or are resolved), you run the risk of creating bland characters, or having them make arbitrary decisions that don’t fit their demeanour simply to reach a specific conclusion. A common mistake in plot-driven stories is to have characters come to conclusions or uncover knowledge that they may not realistically have access to, or make unnaturally lucky guesses that move them forward. Story should always feel like the character (or narrator) is the driving force, but not to the point where they become omniscient themselves.
Having said that, plot lines become more important where specific events do have to occur. Stories set in historically-accurate timelines have to adhere to specific dates, for example. But even then, the character is the one we’re following. If all you’re writing is plot, you’re essentially writing a biography, or a textbook. The difference in tone between a plot-led story and a character-driven one is like comparing a Bond movie to Game of Thrones. Bond is running an investigation and his journey is led by going from place to place as he discovers each piece of the puzzle, whereas Game of Thrones is run by the motivations and actions of the characters. Bond doesn’t choose his path, he follows it. Any person in game of Thrones can completely change the direction of the story.
Characterisation sparks our attention, makes a story feel alive. You can describe a brilliantly-intricate murder mystery, but the most important element is the motive of the killer, and that will reflect in the actions taken by the character whodunnit.
Characters should make a plot exciting to follow, but a plot won’t make characters interesting by itself.