So, I was reading a wrestling article today, and it pointed me to another site. This is a common practice — 411mania, my go-to site for wrestling news, often connects to other sites like ZergNet. (You’ve seen it before — the usual “Best of the Net” stuff at the bottom of some pages, before the comments.) It led me to a site called comicsalliance.com, which had, perhaps, one of the most genuinely moving articles about fiction I’ve read in a long time.
Now, I have almost never read comics in my life (except webcomics). When I was a kid, growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, I liked the Transformers comics, but I remember literally nothing about them. When I think about it, however, that’s extremely odd, because in my entertainment, I almost always prefer great characters to great plot, and that’s what comic books are, at the end of the day — about great characters.
shameless rip-off touching homage to my sci-fi series, he mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I don’t know if we’ll see Angel later, or if even he realizes there’s virtually no way to make a sci-fi angle for that show, even with the whole time travel thing). He dislikes (inasmuch as he dislikes anything in the series) season six, and while I largely agree, I also think “Once More, With Feeling” is the greatest single episode of the show. Why? Yes, it’s about seeing talented people sing incredibly well, but it’s more for a single moment — when Buffy sings out “I was in heaven” and it is so discordant with the rest of the songs… as it should be. Lots and lots of horrible, horrible things happen as a consequence of bringing her back from the dead (this particular time, at any rate), but her friends justify it by claiming they saved her from eternal torment. This is entirely in keeping with their characters.
When they find out she was in heaven instead of hell… the reactions, for me, are the absolute high point of the series, and it’s because the characters have been so well built that this shock is real. We, the audience, know where she was — it’s revealed in an earlier episode — and she keeps it to herself because she knows with absolute certainty that it would destroy her friends. And it does. That’s the climax of the entire series for me — nothing is ever the same afterwards. The characters adapt to the knowledge, but they react in varying ways.
Now, the plot of Buffy is sometimes incredibly silly — any show of that length is bound to have some. The characters keep you coming back. The logical extreme of “characters first” is comic books — but there’s also a medium that might not occur to you right away: pro wrestling.
Pro wrestling is about athleticism, too, but there are incredibly athletic and exciting wrestlers that never, to use the phrase, “draw a dime.” If you aren’t already a pro wrestling fan, you won’t watch Japanese wrestling. (I don’t often, but when I do, I’m always amazed.) You MIGHT watch something like CZW (Combat Zone Wrestling) or Japanese deathmatches if you’re a horrible person. Picture the obviously gimmicked tables in WWE (which are usually plywood) and replace them with actual pine/oak. They use thumb tacks, florescent light tubes, fucking land mines for Christ’s sake (and I am NOT making them up, although they’re a good deal weaker than real mines) or, for the most extreme brutality imaginable, replace the ring ropes with barbed wire. If you genuinely think wrestling is fake (as opposed to staged), watch one of those matches.
Yet the most compelling characters, the ones who break out into the mainstream (Hulk Hogan, the Rock, Stone Cold, and John Cena) are inevitably those with the best characters, even when that means they aren’t great athletes. And that’s fine, because at the end of the day, great matches are for the hardcore fans. Great characters are for everybody else.
4 thoughts on “Character or plot?”
You lost me on the wrestling bit, but as for your title question, character-driven development trumps plot-driven development. Plot-driven development is what you see in a bad horror film: something happens and people react to that event. Then something else happens and people react to that event. This continues until we mercifully reach the end of the movie/show/novel.
In contrast, character-driven development is all about understanding the people in the story. We build on the characters and those characters interact. There’s still a plot, but the characters drive the plot, not the other way around. In other words, instead of the passive “something happens and people react” angle, we see characters act and watch the consequences of their actions. We see people change and grow, fail and redeem themselves, over the course of a larger arc. There are certainly external stimuli involved, but they tend to be rare and act as a way to drive a new character development arc. It’s like bumping a pinball machine: you can do it once in a while to get the ball rolling in a different direction, but abuse that capability and you lose.
Absolutely agree. The key, for me, is change. Buffy and company genuinely change over time, and they change in largely believable ways.
However, I do think purely plot-driven shows can, theoretically work — think about a cop show like Dragnet or Law and Order. The characters change, a little, but not by much. (Not counting the physically different actors in Law and Order, of course). Any show that’s purely episodic rather than serial would fall under this too — like the Twilight Zone — but only because it’s difficult to show change in a short period of time.
I’d use a reference to Supernatural, but a) I don’t want to discourage you from the show and b) it would require some spoilers to make it work.
I’ll put a proviso on that I skipped earlier but thought about including, because you brought up the Twilight Zone. Plot-driven shows can be interesting for a certain amount of time. Pretty much any pilot is going to be plot-driven: we don’t know anything about the characters, so how should we know how these characters “should” respond? Obviously, when you have 20 minutes to do your entire story, it’s hard to create an interesting, character-driven story and you can get away with having the plot drive the narrative. Also, I’m more interested in understanding drama (in the broad sense, encompassing plays, novels, television shows, radio shows, movies, podcasts, and any other medium you can imagine) than entertainment as such.
But go back to some of those Twilight Zone episodes which we still look at today. Because I mentioned it yesterday, let’s go with Time Enough At Last. In 22 minutes, we learn enough about a person to understand his feelings, his regrets, and his utter joy at finally being able to do what he always wanted to do—except then, we see him lose it all with one drop of his glasses. Even though it was only 22 minutes long, I’d still argue that this was a character-driven script. It succeeded because the writers, director, and actors were able to build on a set of social and cultural norms, thereby packing into a couple of minutes what might have taken hours to unfold, leaving them time to see how the main character responds to a major event (that pinball machine bump).
As for Dragnet, it was enjoyable but not really dramatically great. It was a timeless concept in the sense that you could show pretty much any episode in any order and viewers need practically no backstory. This makes it wonderful for syndication, but not great as a story. It’s dramatic candy: sweet and tasty but ultimately unfulfilling. A number of sitcoms are the same way; take the Simpsons as an example (a wonderful example because the writers didn’t even have to worry about the actors aging). I haven’t seen the show in a decade, but going back to the great years, there were few character developments. It was all “Take the steady state situation and add some reacting agent. Analyze the results of this reacting agent, and then introduce a counter-agent which returns us to our steady state.” Occasionally they didn’t include the counter-agent but simply ignored the changes. Every once in a great while, there was a major change which stuck (Maude dying, for example), but the show wasn’t about character development. It was about poking fun at everything, and it was great for that. This made the Simpsons great television, but did not make it a good dramatic experience.
I only know about that episode of the Twilight Zone from the Futurama parody (his eyes also fall out).