What is the Difference Between Character Driven and Plot Driven Anime?

On more than one occasion I have expressed my general preference for character driven narratives in anime in order to give some context to my opinions for you guys. But as language is an imperfect tool and I am a far from perfect craftsman, I realized that the expression “character driven” may not have a set meaning. Or at the very least, may not mean what I think it means.

anime pondering

a lot of things don’t mean what you think they mean!

In order to bypass that little problem and finally give you the context I was aiming for, I figured I would take a minute to explain the difference between character and plot driven narratives in anime. Except, when I tried to do this in real life, I quickly found out it’s not as easy as it sounds!

Two short disclaimers up top. Just because I generally prefer character driven shows doesn’t mean I haven’t loved some plot driven stories just as much. I personally don’t think either approach is better in any way or is more likely to give a high quality narrative. Second, I haven’t done a poll of my readers but from what I’ve read in blogs, most bloggers seem to lean a bit more towards plot driven anime, by my definition.

The simplest way I can define the difference in narratives is that in character driven anime, the characters inform the events instead of the other way around. Basically, the things that happen in the story happen because those people are who they are. In a plot driven story, the characters act and react because that’s what happened. I told you it was going to be a mess.

anime mess

a beautiful mess but still a mess – by Shiomachi Kona

Although this isn’t a fact, the way I like to imagine it is that in a character driven narrative, the people inhabiting the story are crafted first and the plot strives to follow what they do. In a plot driven narrative, a detailed universe is set up and a fascinating event (conflict) or several, are crafted and the people who would naturally take part in the adventure inhabit the narrative. Character driven tales are stories about people, plot driven ones are stories about events.

There you go. Two entire paragraphs on the subject and I’m not quite sure anyone understood that. I hope so. I think it does make some sense. But here’s where the hard work begins. Even if you understand the theory of where I’m coming from, there’s almost no chance that we’re applying it in the same way.

There’s an unfortunate misconception that plot driven narratives have weaker or underdeveloped characters, or that less time is invested in the cast of such stories. On the flip side some people will assume that character driven shows won’t have elaborate premises and will be shows about “nothing” mostly confined to slice of life or cfdct. (That’s cute *folks* doing cute things). Personally, I think that’s almost entirely wrong.

A well written narrative will usually include an interesting or at least viable premise, a plot that is on some level enjoyable, a rich universe AND fleshed out characters. The difference is in the presentation, narrative impact and pacing.  For instance let’s take two action oriented anime which are both quite popular and which I happen to love. Fullmetal Alchemist and Hunter x Hunter. I figure most of you have at least heard of these titles.

HxH crossover

couldn’t find the artists but I love this

In my opinion FMA has some of the finest character craftsmanship out there. It features a comparatively huge cast of morally complex characters who all play intricate roles. Yet, even fairly insignificant side characters feel complete and individual. They seem like they exist outside the confines of the story. Even though we don’t get to see it, we instinctively know they have full lives of their own because they are so well developed. This is a huge strength of the series and I believe it’s something that has helped secure its ongoing popularity. As so many fans felt a real connection to these characters despite how unusual or eccentric they happen to be.

On the other side we have Hunter x Hunter which features a series of clearly defined and escalating narrative arcs, as is traditional for long running Shonen. There have been numerous debates among fans on which arc happens to be the strongest as they each tend to feature their own world building, rules and antagonists. (Most people go for chimera ants I think. Can’t blame them. Tremendous arc!) But 2 out of the 4 supposedly main characters get a rather superficial treatment in the series with Leorio remaining downright underdeveloped.

And yes, to me Fullmetal Alchemist is clearly plot driven while Hunter x Hunter is completely character driven. The takeaway and impact of FMA are the moral questions at the core of the narrative. This was the story of two wars and the ravages we bring on each other out of fear. It was about communication and about the basic value of life. I remember these characters and what they went through. What the world was doing to them. I was fascinated by the story and wanted to know what happened next. I wanted to be part of the adventure.

Hunter x Hunter is the story of two friends. Who shared a path for some time and grew up, and changed or perhaps just realized who they always were. It’s also the individual stories of a menagerie of assorted weirdos who all had their own adventures going on. I remember those characters and how they felt. I remember how they saw the world. I really wanted to know what they would do next. I wanted to be friends with them.

Hunter x Hunter friends

you can get the T-Shirt here

As you can see, it’s a rather subjective distinction. KonoSuba – character driven, ReZero: plot. Psycho pass: plot, Steins;Gate: character. Most of the cute individual (boy or girl) doing cute things shows I’ve seen are plot driven in my opinion. The universe and atmosphere of the series is what is brought to the forefront and the characters have thematic roles to play. Often they are archetypes.

This isn’t an exact science. For instance, when I decided to write this post I tried really hard to qualify Natsume’s Book of Friends and I still don’t know if I would call it a character or plot driven narrative. Finally I took the easy way out and decided that it varied with each episode.

I’m not sure if I manage to properly explain my classification here. In general I tend to prefer character driven narratives only in the sense that I enjoy personal connections I don’t have to directly interact with so I find that I’ll tend to be a bit more generous than the average viewer toward those shows. But there are a lot of plot driven anime in my favorites (manga as well). I simply have to understand that character development wont always be a narrative priority and that’s not a bad thing.

anime dubious

I guess

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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20 Responses

  1. Dez Polycarpe says:

    You did an alright job explaning it. Seeing wether a show is plot driven or character driven is always hard to me in my opinion. So I just want to comfirm that even though a show like attack on titian has well written characters. It would count as plot driven cause characters like Historia and Erwin don’t actually control the plot. As of a series like Grand Blue, it is mainly controlled by the characters thus it being character driven.

  2. Fred says:

    Natsume… I’d call it a character driven anime with a bit of a plot arc. I say this because the world changes Natsume more than he changes the world.

    • Irina says:

      But Natsume is often incidental to the storylines. He’s an observer more than a partcipant. Then again, like I said, i don’t know

  3. Dawnstorm says:

    I mostly agree with your assessment of particular shows, but I’d say Steins;Gate is plot driven. First, it’s part of greater series that includes other semicolon games, and as such needs to fit into a timeline. Second the plot is very intricately constructed: there’s a pattern (on account of the gameplay) that supersedes the content: we send d-mails to change the past, and then we send d-mails to undo them. That’s more fundamental to the story than what the characters are actually doing. And so on. While I’d agree that the characters are more interesting than the plot, I’d say they’re developed along fixed plotlines in terms of what happens, rather than that the plot deriving from what the characters would do.

    My original intuition was that Natsume is a character driven story, but the more I think about it the less clear it becomes. Main characters are often the worst place to look for clues, when you’re trying to figure out whether a story is character driven or plot driven, because often what they do is the plot. That’s where plot and character diverge. The overall structure of Natsume can maybe described as Reiko fills the book of friends, and Takashi empties it again. But that’s a loose concept and not yet a plot. I think we’re following Natsume’s development so closely that it is the plot: we’re so close that the distinction breaks down.

    Theoretically, the distinction is incomplete: there should also be concept driven shows, and setting driven shows. A lot of slice of life is neither character driven nor plot driven, I’d argue. It’s setting driven – the mood or place is foregrounded and determines what’s interesting to follow up on.

    • Irina says:

      Interesting. I do believe there’s also purpose driven shows, for lack of a better term. Where every element is crafted for the purpose of elliciting a very specific response from the audience.

      • Dawnstorm says:

        Hm, what you said about FMA could be interpreted as the plot being in the service of a theme/message/purpose. Now I sort of wonder what it means for a story to be “driven” by something. Are slice-of-life shows driven by anything, really, or do they just amble forward at a leisurly pace? Metaphors are only easy to understand until you run into problems…

        You can play the genre game, for example: mysteries are generally plot driven (especially whodunnits), but then there are noir stories, where the mysteries really serve characterisations and/or exploration of morality themes… But then again, maybe that’s just a different kind of plot.

        I have fairly good intuitions about whether I think a show’s character driven or plot driven, but in analytical mode I then find out that I don’t actually know what I’m talking about. Heh.

  4. Dewbond says:

    This is a great little article. I think there are many shows that have elements of both, but some that are mostly either plot or character.

    Fate Stay Night Example can be both depending on which route. I think Heaven’s Feel is very much a plot driven story, while Unlimited Blade Works is more character drive, focused on Shirou’s reconciliation with himself. Bunny Girl Senpai is a character piece, as is ReZero and hell even High School DxD. Cardcaptor Sakura is again I think, a character piece.

  5. kimchisama says:

    Plot driven stories can have a downfall. It can push the character to do things that they really wouldn’t do, just to match the plot.
    Something I figured out is that if the characters motivations are in place it can actually really help drive and shape the plot. So I tend to figure out what my characters want then the plot can form around that.
    When plot driven and character driven meet it really does create an amazing story. I think that is part of why FMA has such longevity. People connect to the characters and then they have an amazing plot that makes sense with the story.
    What comes first though? Character or the plot? haha Again for me it is personal preference that Character comes first. I like to fall in love with characters and honestly an anime or story can have a great plot but if I don’t care about anyone I will usually stop reading/watching.
    I loved reading this! You really brought out my writer nerd today!

  6. wingking78 says:

    “Character driven tales are stories about people, plot driven ones are stories about events.” I think that’s an apt summation, although you do run into a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem sometimes trying to figure out which comes first. Like the whole point of a situational comedy is to throw the characters into a wacky scenario and see how it plays out, for instance three characters getting trapped in a shed. But is that plot-driven because getting trapped in the shed is what motivates the characters to act, or is it character-driven because the characters’ personalities will affect how they act inside that shed (e.g., the character who’s scared of the dark will react very differently than the one who’s a trained survivalist)? I guess the answer to that question is probably to evaluate which one the show itself puts more emphasis on (does it seem more interested in our trapped trio’s external actions, or their internal reactions?), but that’s getting back to the subjective part of it again.

  7. marthaurion says:

    i understand what you’re getting at, but i dont know if it’s a distinction that i make myself. perhaps it’s one that i should make, but i feel like im the type of person who could spend forever arguing both character and plot focus for any series. then again, my preferences tend to be more fluid than most, so making the distinction for what i like more on a really broad generalization probably isnt even my style.

    • Irina says:

      My brain works with over cathegorizing things but I’m also not sure how useful it is tbh. It is interesting to think how it could shape a narrative but ultimately it’s just speculation

      • Brooke Cannon says:

        Mostly, I just love to enjoy the beautiful artwork and look at the genre of show as well as enjoy any Romance in there! I just LOVE 2 suck up any romance I find in ANY show as long as it’s not too creepy or weird and it doesn’t talk about sex…

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