Plot vs Character

Leon Sculpture

Hey All,

Thanks for allowing me to digress into the business applications of storytelling.  Let’s get back to what we intended to do — breaking down screenwriting into snackable bites.  So far, we have discussed the issues of plot and structure.  But stories are about people doing heroic and noble things.  So, which is more important: plot or character.  Let’s take a look…

In Western Culture, virtually everything is understood through the process of storytelling.  We tend to use the life experience of one person – the “journey” of a particular “hero,” in the lingo of the mythologist Joseph Campbell – as a prism for understanding everything else.   But movies are all about plot and story.  So which comes first…?

 You need both.

Plot and Character are tied together.  They define each other.  That means, you need to create them simultaneously.  Generally, in Hollywood, this is what is meant by “High Concept.”

If you have a high concept…

Let’s say you come up with a great idea, setting or situation for a story that justifies making a movie.  How do you make that story come to life…?  You need characters.  Interesting and compelling characters.  No matter how many car chases and gun fights and bombs exploding that you have, if the audience doesn’t care about the characters, they will be bored.

When you have a great character…

Let’s say you have a great character.  How do you bring his or her story to life…?  You have to figure out what would make the best story for that person.  What journey would be most interesting and best articulates the themes that you want to touch on in the telling of your story.

Putting the two together

As you develop your story, your character will change to fit the needs of the story you want to tell.  Conversely, the story will change to accommodate the traits, skills and wants of your character.  Together, the writer will change and shift both the story and the character to create a cohesive entity that holds viewers’ attention and has them rooting for the story’s characters to succeed.

Character through action.

In a dramatic script, characters reveal themselves through action.  In this case, action is defined as the choices they make – not the things they do, unless those acts are the result of a decision within the character, for example: the gunman who has put down his guns finally makes the choice to pick them up and use them again, only this time for the right reason.  This is called “dramatic action.”

Dramatic action is the deed that a character does based on a specific choice that s/he has made that advances the plot.  The plot is advanced when a character does something that changes the equilibrium between the protagonist and antagonist.

For example: In “Romeo & Juliet,” the priest gives the young lovers poison with which to kill themselves.  This advances the plot – but not because the Priest gives it to them, but because Romeo and Juliet choose to accept the poison as their only way to escape their predicament.

All other activity in a scene that a character does is also based on choices made by that character, but if they don’t alter the plot they are merely action, not “dramatic action.”

For example, a character is being chased by a gang so he steals a car to escape and leads the gang on a winding chase through the city.  The dramatic action of that scene is whether or not the character eludes the gang.  Everything else is intra-scene action which is important for writing the scene, but has no real bearing on the plot.


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