All novels, whether character or plot-based, should have an internal/emotional plot and an external/physical plot. In other words, the protagonist should be on a quest to solve both an emotional and physical problem. But depending on the type of novel you are writing, you’ll find that either the emotional problem drives the physical, or the physical problem is driving the emotional one.
In a character-based novel, the emotional problem is what drives the physical problem. If they didn’t have an internal/emotional problem, they might not have the physical problem at all. For example, if Troy Billings of K. L. Going’s Fat Kid Rules The World didn’t feel so terrible about himself, he wouldn’t have been standing on that subway platform, waiting to jump. He wouldn’t have been sucked into Curt’s band, and he never would have vomited on stage. In the end, he may never have stood up to his father.
In a plot-based novel, the physical problem drives the emotional problem. In The Hunger Games, Katniss never would have had to grapple with becoming a killer if she didn’t have to volunteer herself for the Hunger Games. If she never entered the games, she would never have thought about Peeta as anything more than the baker’s son. She wouldn’t have to choose during the trilogy if she was going to become a puppet for one regime just to destroy another. She wouldn’t have realized that she did love Peeta, after all.
You’ll also notice a difference in pacing between a character and plot-based novel. A character-based novel may feel slower to the reader, because we are seeing an emotional change. The changes could be subtle. We may see, for example, Troy feeling better about himself and becoming more outgoing, only to have a set back and have him retreat back into his shell. (Note that the set back is a plot-based set back, that triggers an emotional set back. The heart of the novel though, is still how Troy feels about himself.) On the other hand, a plot-driven novel will have a physical step forward or step back in every chapter with less time for the character to digest how he’s feeling about it. The “ticking clock” is generally more pressing in a plot-based novel.
Sometimes, particular genres lend themselves to one type of novel or another. Literary fiction tends to be character-driven. Mystery, suspense, fantasy and other genres tends to be plot-driven. But that’s not to say that people can’t fall in love with well drawn fantasy characters (see: Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Lyra & Will, etc.) or that there are no fast paced scenes in literary fiction. In both forms of fiction, we still want to read about identifiable, well-drawn characters and see chapters with movement.
In your writing, always be clear about the protagonist’s motivations (internal and external) and think about how they interact. Once you realize which motivation is driving the other for your protagonist, you can look at your chapter arcs with a much clearer eye!
For more examples, read the following books and think about how one action drives another.
HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown – The main journey of the protagonist, Valerie, is to heal after her boyfriend shot several of her classmates at school and then killed himself. The chapter arcs focus on Valerie’s emotional growth, and what she has to do in order to overcome both her grief and the knowledge that some of her classmates suspect she was involved in the shooting.
IF I STAY by Gayle Forman – After Mia and her family are in a horrific car accident, she discovers that she’s in a coma. She has to decide to either stay, without her parents and brother, or follow the rest of her immediate family in death. We see flashbacks of Mia’s life as a way to understand what she’d be giving up with either decision, and we see the people around Mia fight for her. Chapter arcs focus on Mia’s emotional journey, as she decides whether life is worth living after she’s just lost so much.
HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy by Phillip Pullman – Lyra is on a journey to save her best friend from the “gobblers,” and eventually discovers that she has a much larger role in the creation and destruction of “dust.” Because of her physical journey, she also discovers love and her own personal power. She grows up, and becomes a teenager.
THE SAMMY KEYES MYSTERIES by Wendelin Van Draanen – In each book, Sammy has a case to solve and each chapter brings her further from or closer to solving the mystery. At the same time though, Sammy also experiences crushes, struggles to form a relationship with her mother and fights with her archenemy, Heather Acosta.