Character vs. Plot

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Character vs. Plot

What's more important in a good script, the characters or the plot? That's like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. In the best stories, characters and plot are solidly intertwined. Story events force a character to make decisions. And the decisions a character makes influence what happens in the story. They each drive the other. Ideally, your script will have both a riveting plot and three-dimensional characters we can care about.

That said, there is a difference between plot-driven and character-driven stories. The question is not so much which is more important, but what's the entry point into the story?

If you're writing a plot-driven story—an action film, a spy story, or a natural disaster movie—you probably have some idea of what is going to happen. The bad guys are going to steal a secret weapon and try to gain world domination. The question quickly turns to character. Who is the hero going to be? Who can stand up to these evil villains? And just how bad are the bad guys? What kind of people would do such a thing? For your plot-driven story to really resonate and become something special, you need compelling characters.

The same holds true if you're writing a character-driven story. The Painted Veil (novel by W. Somerset Maugham, screenplay by Ron Nyswaner) is about an English couple in a loveless marriage set in the 1920s. The wife is a selfish socialite and the husband a timid doctor. When he finds out she's having an affair, he gives her a choice that will change both of their lives forever: to face the scandal of divorce or follow him into the remote countryside where a cholera epidemic is raging. She chooses to follow him, and thus begins her transformation from spoiled brat to mature woman. The plot was triggered by a character's decision, but the main character's transformation was triggered by the plot. Had these two stayed at home, had nothing happened to shake them out of themselves, there'd be no story. When you start with character, the questions to ask are, "What can happen to this person to totally transform her? What situations will test her to the core? How can I exploit her worst fear? How can I threaten what's dearest to her?"

Focus exclusively on plot, and you'll end up with a formulaic story packed with action but performed by puppet-like characters. Focus exclusively on character, and you'll end up with a rambling, talky, pointless script. Whether your concept is character-driven (As Good as it Gets, Tootsie) or plot-driven (Alien, Titanic), remember that the best movies deliver both great plots and amazing characters.



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