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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Character Vs. Plot

No I'm not dead -- thanks for asking. Just VERY busy and generally distracted. And teaching EFL 'cos super broke. Joy.

Thanks for the comments on the coincidence post: some useful stuff there. Seems the general consensus is coincicidence is an absolute no-no UNLESS it's a small issue AND gets your protagonist into some kind of trouble.

So here's another for you: character or plot - which is most important? After all, we read loads on creating great characters and loads on killer plot and structure. It's all well and good saying they MUST go hand in hand, but it's said that audiences don't remember plots, they remember characters. On the flip side, you can have the greatest character in the world, but if the plot is rubbish your spec is going nowhere.

So does character have the upper hand in a spec? Or plot?

So what is it to be? You can be on one side - or the other. Not both. Over to you...

24 comments:

Carlo Conda said...

I'd say character is what hooks people in, but the plot is definately just as important in the grand scheme. Plot should compliment your characters, and characters should compliment the plot. Neither should work alone.

But that's kind of obvious. :P

David said...

Disclaimer: I know nothing.

I was going to say plot, because people talk about the twists they didn't see coming (e.g., Sixth Sense, Darth Vader is another character's dad). But then, some people like characters too: Yoda, Indy, Bond.

So, I'm still going to say plot, because I think that's what intrigues people and pulls them along even if they don't like the characters too much.

MJ said...

Character all the way, but like you say, the plot needs to be doing something or we get bored. Still, I'd rather watch an interesting character meandering about doing little, than watch 1-dimensional ghosts whatever they're doing.

Carlo Conda said...

Great characters save "meh" plots.
Great plots hardly ever save crappy characters.
Both are needed to make a fantastic story, however.

People cared about Darth Vader being Luke's father because it meant so much for Luke's character and his struggle to defeat the Empire.


I mean, look at a show like Lost for instance. It's pretty complex in the plot department, but characters rule the show. (However, this is television, where character is clearly more important than plot)

Good Dog said...

Oh, this is weird. I've been scribbling about character on and off for a couple days, especially in light of the financial drubbing Speed Racer got, and am waiting to see Iron Man before I post it.

Hang about, maybe this should be a comment for the coincidence post.

I think yer man Carlo is right there. When there are exceptions, it's mainly the big, high concept summer movies like... dinosaurs on an island! Who really gives a hoo-ha about the humans, really. Will they get scoffed? Wicked!!

That may work the first time but... Well, I use Jurassic Park as an example because I'd been glancing at the three-movie boxset on the shelf, trying to remember when I bought it in the sales and wondering whether I shouldn't watch or two.

Put the first film on, got to as far as Newman going to steal the embryos and decided that was more than enough. Of course by then it didn't matter. The movie had already done what it was supposed to do - make a massive amount of money!

So even if the idea shifts toward your stonking killer plot, there has to be enough character moments to keep the audience interested and invested in what they do.

Otherwise.... Speed Racer.

Good Dog said...

Darth Vader is Luke's father????

When did this happen?

Carlo Conda said...

Episode 5, loser! lol

Sally A said...

I'm going to say story which is where the two intersect. I read a great quote recently which said that plot is what happens and story is what that means to the characters. A brilliant definition I think. To really crack a script you have to weigh them both equally otherwise you won't get in through the door and, let's face it, if one element is really crap we're going to stop watching.

However, another question may be what's most important to YOU as a writer? What's your impetus? And for me it's character. Six times out of ten I get the character first and from developing them get the story. Though, thinking about it, it used to be more on character... now it tends to be that I think up story and then work out what is the right character to tell that story.

Oooo.. this is difficult... and maybe I'm about as useful as a chocolate radiator......

;-)

Jason said...

In my many learnings with Miss Lucy she has shown time and time again (after drubbing my work continually...just kidding Lucy ha ha) that it is PLOT that drives characters to change - so ultimately it is plot that is most important element here.

Yes, your story may well begin with a great character, but without plot how do they grow? How does the audience see them react under pressure, or when they get to the edge of the cliff and face their fears? Having a great character is not enough - they must have a recognizable journey that we can empathise with - that is what makes great cinema and truly engaging story telling.

Elinor said...

Characters first. Plot, a very close second.

Jason said...

Elinor...Elinor ...Elinor...I can't agree. I can name quite a few great movies that began with sketchy characters (in Duel, what do we know about Dennis Weaver's character, apart from the fact he's being chased by a killer truck)?

Does it make it a less effect movie? Hell no! It's plot all the way folks, without it you're making a kitchen sink drama without any drama - two great characters trapped in a room doing nothing and not growing - hmm...sounds like eastenders ;-)

I am of course still learning and I'm sure the great lady herself is waiting in the
wings to cut me down...nothing changes eh Lucy?

Lucy said...

Children, children...No fighting please ; )

Interesting comments so far, I suppose I better say where I'm at, especially since Jase is telling everyone anyway ; )

As far as I'm concerned, films are plot first, character second (but only by the thinnest of margins, obviously.) The reason for this is simple: movies are plot-driven, not character-driven. No one watches films where "nothing much happens", they watch a film in which a wo/man does something specific... and LEARNS something along the way, hence the character arc. But I don't think you can have the character arc without the plot. You can however have plot without character arc. Maybe those latter films aren't so good, I agree, but they can exist. I've seen countless specs however that do the exact opposite: they invest in their characters at the expense of plot and as a result, cannot work.

So it's a given that you should have a great plot AND a great character and as Jase says, the journey of the plot can bring out a fantastic character arc. But if you haven't and you've written a load of tripe, better a load of tripe with a definite plot than a good character wandering about not doing very much.

Jason said...

And now here's the danger if you outsmart a woman whose blog is named lock n' load - I'll wager I'm in trouble down there in ElinorWorld (TM) - but fear not lady as I'm still gunning for this weekend to review your short...

As for Lucy, you are a shameless hussy - you lead us here with your insightful ditties and then berate us like the school headmistress when we fight...hmmm uniforms hmmm...

Jaded and Cynical said...

Plot wins.

Look at The Da Vinci Code. The characters were either boring or absurd. But the story worked.

One of my favourite TV shows is 24 (150 hour-long episodes and still going strong). The characters are all walking cliches. But the narrative is so unrelenting that the viewer never has time to care.

Obviously characterization matters. But a strong, fast-paced story will cover a lot of sins.

Tom said...

>>No one watches films where "nothing much happens"<<

Perhaps you need to define plot a little more then because I'm thinking of films like Twelve Angry Men, Before Sunrise, Clerks, Lost In Translation to name but a few. Maybe it's just me but they seem to be films in which nothing much happens or, at very least, what takes place in terms of plot is secondary and almost irrelevant.

Lucy said...

I remember absolutely nothing about Lost in Translation Tom (which means I can't have liked it) and thought Clerks was boring as hell. As for the others, I don't think I've seen them. Soz.

What I can say is that plot requires structure: to me that's your classic set up, conflict, resolution but then there's all the others - 22 steps, mini movie method, etc. Before plot, there's premise: the plot then draws on that premise and gives us the whole picture I reckon - I think of plot as a series of interconnected events, one after another, that builds up and up and leads to some kind of crescendo (either literal or metaphorical or both).

People say structure's formulaic and certainly movies can read like recipes sometimes, but without structure, without a journey and destination, what are we watching the movie for? Why are we being asked to invest in what this character is doing? If I want to observe random human behaviour then I can go to a shopping centre and look at people passing by.

Lucy said...

Forgot the link - I go into plot construction in more detail here

Carlo Conda said...

@Jaded and Cynical,

Except The DaVinci Code sucked. If it didn't get uptight people's panties in a twist, and if people weren't silly enough to think the author was sane (he actually believes his mythologies are factually true, when he himself is the one who makes them up. Scary), then The DaVinci Code would have been a huge flop.

No literary people enjoy the book, and it's torn apart by critics for plain out being a bad story (in both movie and book form).

Anyways, back on topic, Plot is very important, there's no denying that. In most cases, both character and plot are just as important as eachother. However, I'm willing to say that a movie that has great chaacters and a crappy plot would be better than a movie that had great plot and crappy characters.

Rach said...

I'm going by what makes me watch something again and again and OK again.

I don't watch again to see a string of events that I already know but to spend time with character's I love.

So character wins for me, just.

Tom said...

Thanks Lucy. It was more of a rhetorical question because I was also thinking of Reservoir Dogs. There's a series of events that go on - the setup, the heist, the escape etc. - but in terms of what is actually seen in the film, not a lot happens: basically people in a room dealing with the aftermath of a robbery-gone-wrong. There are events (more or less all character driven) and there's plenty of conflict and there's even structure but it's definitely a character piece (and not one you can go down to the local shopping centre to watch I'm guessing).

I know you said that we had to come down on one side or the other but rules were made to be broken and if I did everything you told me to I'd be a much less interesting person (or is that more interesting!) The truth is that both are important and it depends on the story. Think about books - people will read Agatha Christie or Tom Clancy because of the plot and working out whodunnit but people will also read Jane Austen or J.D. Salinger because of the characters.

So I agree with Sally and say Story is important and it depends on whether it's plot driven or character driven as to which is more important for that story.

Then again, what the hell do I know? :)

Dave said...

Like mj said “I'd rather watch an interesting character meandering about doing little.”

In a spec script both character and plot are important but for me the balance has to have a little extra weight on the side of the character.

A reader will probably have seen every plot a hundred times before, what they won’t have seen before is 'your' characters.

Good Dog said...

Didn't someone say somewhere that books are character and films are plot.

Could you use "Why did the chicken cross the road?" as an example of plot over the character?

Obviously wanting to know... er....

Iron Man completely rocked by the way!

Jaded and Cynical said...

Fair play to Tom for mentioning 12 Angry Men . It's a great movie and a great piece of writing.

Of course, it would never get made today. Not unless Eddie Murphy was allowed to play all twelve jurors.

evil twinz said...

Here's some controversy:

the less experienced you are, the less you realise how important plot is OVER character?

I've got appointments until 2 but I receive the lynch mob at 3. Ta.