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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

GUEST POST: Characters or Plot, Which Is More Important? by Matthew B. J. Delaney

You’re sweatpantsing it at home slouched into the sofa shoveling Americone Dream into your mouth using your friend’s borrowed HBO Go password and you come across the following film choices: Boardwalk Empire. Game of Thrones. A documentary about your Mom.

You freeze, Americone Dream dripping down your chin. You read that right. HBO has made a documentary about your Mom. Do you think, “Well, I don’t know…does it have a good plot?” Of course not. You hurl that Americone Dream across the room, fired up on life and watch that docudrama with a passion.

Why? Because characters rule.

In the movie of your life, your Mom is a main character; and we all worship characters we know. That’s why human beings love story telling gossip. Gossip isn’t plot driven. It’s character driven. The content of the stories isn’t what interests, it’s that the stories are cast with people we know. Nothing bores more than gossip about strangers. Next time you’re on the subway, listen in on some gossipy conversation. Within seconds you’ll feel the will to live drain from your body.

Stories only work if we have an attachment to the people involved. We need to feel close to the characters. If there’s no closeness, there’s no feeling. And getting the audience to feel something, anything, anger, sadness, joy, should be the goal of any good writer. You want to hear that story about your Dad, neighbor, co-worker, whoever, because you care about him or her. If a writer can generate that same feeling of closeness in fictional characters, plot becomes almost irrelevant.


Of course, after a while, a great character with no plot is like hanging out with your grandmother. Nice person, but nothing ever happens when you’re with her. If terrorists never seize Nakatomi Plaza, we never get John McClane. If the Holy Grail, and the Arc of the Covenant were already sitting in a museum, we never get Indiana Jones. Good characters are made great by the plot they find themselves in. People who rush into burning buildings become legend. Good characters who do stuff become great characters. And those things that happen to people you care about is called the plot.

So which is better, plot or character? Depends....

In general, plot driven stories are more marketable than character driven. Plot is film trailers and blurbs on book jackets. We choose new stories to read or watch because of exciting plots. The 5 highest grossing films of all time are heavy plot, light character:
- Avatar 
- Titanic 
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens 
- Jurassic World 
- The Avengers.

These are all entertaining movies dominated by things happening. The characters are interchangeable pieces to throw explosions or dinosaurs, or sinking ships at. They don’t really matter. People don’t walk around reciting quotes from any of these films, because characters are made memorable by the things they say. And there are no truly memorable characters in any of these movies.

Memorable scenes, yes, memorable quotes, no.

On the other hand, character movies are filled with amazing lines.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Here’s looking at you kid.

These are the kind of things that characters who really blow your hair back say. The cool comebacks and one liners you wish you could have used on anyone who pushed you around or made you fall in love. These are character driven quotes, and the top IMDB highest rated films of all time are filled with them:
- Shawshank Redemption
- The Godfather
- The Godfather: Part II. 
- 12 Angry Men
- The Dark Knight (Don’t be fooled by The Dark Knight. Thanks to Heath Ledger, this is a total character film; just one in which lots of action happens to the characters.)

Notice there’s no overlap in the two lists. As a general rule, box offices favor plot and critics favor character. Plot stories make good money. Character movies make good memories. Character movies also make sequels. And sequels make money and memory.

No matter how much we like the idea of a boy going to a school for wizards, or a millionaire playboy fighting crime, if we don’t love the characters created in the Philosopher’s Stone or Dark Knight, we never have the rest of the series. Superhero stories always start off as character driven. Once we know the backstory, how this person came to be ‘super’, then we can proceed with the explosions, and the 37 sequels.

We need character to build the base of interest. Then we need a bunch of stuff to happen to that character we’ve grown to love. The best stories combine plot and character, by allowing the plot to define and shape the character. Something exciting happens and by seeing how our character responds, we get character development.

I don’t care why people love each other. What’s interesting is what keeps them apart. What keeps them apart is plot, and that’s where the character comes from. Remember those awful minimum wage high school jobs that older people were always saying built character? They do build character. Memorable, exciting, terrible events, and how people respond to them are all ways we can form and shape our character. Every hero needs to battle a villain. Every lover needs an obstacle. Every character needs conflict. The plot helps chisel away the stone that reveals the great character underneath.

So which is better, plot or character? Depends on you.

Do you want that vacation villa on Lake Como or an Oscar? Vacation villa writers do plot. Oscar writers do character. The best writers do both. They create well plotted stories filled with conflict and brilliant characters, stack their villas with Oscars, then go on to become the world’s greatest lovers.


Official Author Website

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: Matthew B.J. Delaney published his first novel, Jinn, in 2003. Winner of the International Horror Guild Award, the novel was optioned for film by Touchstone Pictures, was featured as People magazine’s Page-Turner of the Week, and received a Publishers Weekly Starred Review.

Delaney received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Dartmouth College and a master’s in public administration from Harvard. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, he left a career in finance and moved from Boston to New York City to join the New York City Police Department. He has been a member of the NYPD for twelve years and has been assigned to precincts throughout Manhattan and the Bronx as well as within police headquarters and the Intelligence Division. He is currently a decorated Special Operations Lieutenant serving in a Brooklyn violent crime suppression unit. He continues to write in his spare time.

Order Black Rain HERE

Official Black Rain Blurb: In a darkly warped near future, lucrative disease cures are brokered on Wall Street’s Genetic Stock Exchange. And the hottest consumer products are artificially synthesized humans that serve as everything from domestic slaves to combatants in savage gladiatorial games. For Jack Saxton, the young heir to genetic design powerhouse Genico Inc., these Synthates are just a fact of life…until the murder of a high-profile genetic scientist leads a pair of seasoned NYPD detectives to Genico’s door.

As a small band of Synthate rebels steps up its attack on the status quo, Jack encounters a pleasure-parlor girl who opens his eyes to their cause. When he dares to sympathize with the rebels, Jack is hunted down and arrested for the murder. Sentenced to die in the brutal games on Bloomberg Island, Jack will be forced to fight—for his life, for the future of all Synthates, and for a chance to uncover the mind-bending secret buried in his past.


Laura said...

No way I watching Mom over Game of Thrones. But GoT is character driven. I'd say Titanic is character over plot too. We know the ship sinks. We care because of the characters. And they both pass the quote test.

Dave Creek said...

I would add AVENGERS to the character list. The action is great, but my favorite parts are actually character-driven. Tony Stark telling Steve Rogers maybe he's missed a few things over the years. Thor smiling as he's about to fight the Hulk. Stark and Banner again: Steve Rogers: "Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?" Tony Stark: "Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist." (This, as Black Widow nods in agreement that Tony's got some stuff going on. And Banner explaining the secret to becoming the Hulk instantly: "I'm always angry."

Without these character moments, any such movie is just a series of action scenes where we don't care about the characters.


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