The Autistic Writer: Character-Driven vs Plot-Driven Fiction

A few weeks ago in this series I posted about the character creation process for the Autistic writer in me. You may want to read or reread that before going any further here, as this  is about how much weight is assigned to characters as a component within a given narrative.

A common, (though I would argue, fading) distinction in fiction is character-driven vs plot-driven.

These terms are what they sound like. Literary fiction more often than not is character driven. It’s an exploration of the human experience via the response of the characters to their situation.

The lion’s share of commercial fiction, however, emphasizes the plot—how X leads to Y causing Z.

Obviously there are characters in plot-driven commercial fiction. Among the most popular fictional people in all the world are such. Nevertheless what is happening and why carries more weight than who is experiencing same in those works.

And yes, character-driven novels can present a deep plot. More on that in a moment.

Still, character-driven and plot-driven as terms provide convenient, if broad classifications when approaching fiction titles.

I tend to write character-driven fiction, despite plot playing a major role in the experience of reading my novels. I could, and in fact have written books that are solely character driven. My experimental novella The Italics Are My Own for instance. The argument could be made that my The Beacons I See also qualifies, though I could counter that.

However, I can’t imagine ever writing a purely plot-driven work on purpose. The closest I have come to doing so is my only murder mystery Murder. Theatre. Solitaire, but even then I spent more time with how the characters felt and thought than most murder novels. This is one reason I call it a “cozy mystery.”

Though this is a conscious style choice on my part, my Autism no doubt influences it.

People on The Spectrum tend to think in logical, almost clinical terms. The chess pieces on the board, if you will. (Though I suck at chess.) Many of us think in concepts before, or even instead of personality.

I have a list of concepts for potential fiction projects, most of which have not, or will not ever see the light of day.

Why not? Because in the end I determine they lack character potential. I’ll admit I’ve “come up” with some wild, thought-provoking concepts. A slew of “what ifs” that I believe came about because of my Autism brain.

Yet I can’t stand reading purely conceptual fiction. In sci-fi that means more pages about the theory than the people living the reality of it. In fantasy it means chapters of world-building before a single line of dialogue is spoken. Boiler-plate police procedurals. And so on.

And if I can’t enjoy reading them, I am not going to enjoy writing them. At least, not in a narrative. So in the case of a character-driven approach, it’s about me reigning in an Autistic tendency early in the creation process.

There may be some way, someday that more of my “conceptuals” get written into full-fledged pieces, but they won’t be novels or stories.

Plenty of people, Autistic people included, love high concept fiction, even when it lacks memorable characters. As always, you must remember Autism is not a monolith. Yet if I were to take the path of least resistance at the intersection of my fiction writing and my Autism, I feel I’d be satisfying a whim, and not my ideal reader.

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