That age-old question: Character vs. Plot?

The relationship between plot and character is something I find very interesting; how to get a good balance between them. In any media, I’m always drawn to stories centered more around the question, why than what.

What is that golden ration between plot and character?

I know it’s a question impossible to answer because the opinion will differ based on people’s personal preference. So, right from the start, I have to accept that whatever conclusion I reach it’s a decision that will inevitably displease some people, simply because it’s not to their taste.

I’m no different. But, plot vs. character is something I think about a lot and especially this last year. Naturally, my own writing plays a big part in why I’m so preoccupied with the question, but it’s also made me think more about why I do or do not enjoy other people’s writing.

One thing that highlighted that for me was two TV-shows who’ve both been favorites of mine, but who’s most recent seasons really disappointed me.

Disclaimer: I rarely express if I don’t like a movie, book, etc. I don’t leave bad reviews or go on twitter ranting about a movie I disliked. I don’t see the point, and I think it’s a waste of time and energy that can be better spent. Also, it’s just my opinion; I hate when I’ve just read, played or watched something I really enjoyed, and then I come across a rant or bad review and it always somewhat pollutes my experience.  If I don’t like a book, I stop reading. If I lose interest in TV-show, I stop watching and if a movie disappoints me I shrug and think that at least there was popcorn. If I do finish a book or continue watching a TV-show even though I’m not enjoying it, it’s because I think it has potential and I try to take away what I enjoyed instead of the things I didn’t. So, the examples I’m about to give regarding shows that disappointed me is not meant to spread negativity,  it’s purely to make a point about storytelling and plot vs. characters. If you loved these seasons then good for you, please don’t let my disappointment dampen your excitement. Also, there will be no spoilers! End Disclaimer

Vintage movie-poster: Reptilicus

The two seasons I looked forward to most in 2017 was: Twin Peaks: The Return and The Walking Dead, Season 8 (which we’re only halfway through, I know.) Both shows are ones I’ve enjoyed, and I was very excited about; they’re also good examples of what I feel is the plot overshadowing the characters in what used to be shows focused on the opposite.

Both have a very snapshot type of style and pacing, you get five minutes of a character off to this side and ten minutes of this character over here and there’s no flow, no bridge between the glimpses to give you a sense of cohesiveness. I get that it’s supposed to be “intriguing storytelling” but in its eagerness to be “interesting” there’s no room to tell the story, and you’re left with oversimplified versions of what used to be really well-rounded characters. In its ambition to be modern, edgy or visually interesting it undervalues its most valuable asset, the people who carry the narrative.

Disclaimer 2: I know saying I don’t like Twin Peaks: The Return, is like pouring a can of gasoline over my head and walking straight into an angry mob armed with flaming torches. The Fanbase is devout, to put it mildly, David Lynch their God and differentiating opinions routed out with the tenacity of the Spanish Inquisition. So here goes: Yes, I know Twin Peaks is supposed to be weird. I love weird. I like surrealism and symbolism, and I enjoy slow-paced complicated stories.

I can’t help but feel like the underlining creative ambition for the whole season was more about David Lynch being as bizarre on TV as he could get away with, than telling a compelling story.  I’ve read comments from many people expressing the same thoughts and reservations I have, and the standard comeback is that the particular person isn’t smart enough to understand the complexity of the show and that all they wanted was a rerun of the first two season in a modern setting.

I understood it just fine, and I didn’t want, nor did I expect, a rehash of the firsts two seasons. I did, however, want and expect a story, not David Lynch publicly pleasuring himself for eighteen long, long hours. End Disclaimer
Vintage movie-poster: Forbidden Planet

I don’t believe that storytelling has to be linear or focused on one or a small group of characters. There are plenty of examples of stories that either/and/or jump in time, have POV’s split between many characters, or creative and unorthodox narratives that are fantastic and imaginative. Shows like:

Hannibal –  is visually stunning, but the narrative is also so compelling as it’s mostly told from the unreliable perspective of someone having a breakdown while being manipulated by a cannibalistic serial killer.

Penny Dreadful – simultaneously follows several POV’s and subplots and still weaves it all into a cohesive story, all while playing with already well-known literary characters.

Fringe – explores alternate timelines and at one point follows two sets of the same characters existing in parallel universes.

American Gods – is another visually stunning show but also with an interesting narrative. It throws in stand-alone “mini-stories” in (almost) every episode that reveals something about the mythology or a major character, while also having a large cast and many subplots.

Despite the cleverness or the artistic/visual intention of these shows, they don’t sacrifice their characters for the plot; they coexist and drive each other forward. I love smart and inventive storytelling, but an intelligent plot needs characters interesting enough to hold it up.

Vintage movie-posters: Attack of the 50ft woman

I’ve watched every episode of both Twin Peaks: The Return and The Walking Dead Season 8 (and I’ll watch the remaining episodes), it takes more than one disappointing season for me to abandon a series I love. But, I feel like I’m still sitting here waiting for the story to begin. However original the plot has been in both shows, I can’t relate to it. The characters feel invisible to the extent of almost being redundant, other characters feel like overblown caricatures of themselves.

I know I lean very heavily towards the character side of things, but I can’t help but wonder: what’s the point of a clever plot when your characters are shallow or even hollow?

How do you feel about it? Do you gravitate more towards plot-driven or character-driven stories?

Unless credited, all images displayed on this blog are either mine or Copy Right Free and released under Creative Commons CC0. They are available for free at one or more of the following places: Max Pixel, Flickr, Public Domain Archive, Pixabay or Gratisography.

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2 thoughts on “That age-old question: Character vs. Plot?

  1. Character is king, but you need a decent plot to hang it all on. A great plot should be invisible – it’s when someone suddenly acts out of character just to further the story that you notice it, like seeing all the ugly scaffolding holding up a beautiful building. It is very disillusioning.

    Agree with you about American Gods – a beautiful series, compelling characters and an intriguing plot!

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    1. I agree! Character is king, but as you say, it’s a symbiotic relationship where both parts need the other.

      If you like American Gods, you should checkout Hannibal (if you haven’t already) Brian Fuller who was the show-runner for American Gods also created Hannibal, they have a very similar aesthetic and feeling.

      Like

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