Driving the Story to Success
Why Characters, Plot, or Both is Fundamentally Important to Writing a Great Story
I read a really interesting screenplay the other day that was well-written with an interesting situation. But the story didn’t land because even though everything about it was great, it was missing two fundamental components that truly define how great a story is: Characters and plot.
At the end of the day, you either need to have interesting characters to unpack so that we can experience or fail to experience growth in them, an interesting plot to keep us engaged, or both. But without at least one or the other, you’re pretty much destined to write a flaccid piece, whether you know it or not.
Let me explain…
I wrote about developing compelling characters in this piece a while back, so you can read that if you want to get into the finer details. But the main point is that even though your characters don’t have to grow from the experiences they go through, your audience should at least know what they need to understand in order to grow.
That’s ultimately what makes a character interesting. It’s this exploration of who they are and what they need to become if they want to live a better life. A great example of this is from the movie, The Peanut Butter Falcon. The main character, Tyler, starts off as this low-life who is fired from his job for bringing in illegal crab catches. In a fit of rage, he decides to burn his rival’s gear, which forces him to skip town.
It’s here where Tyler runs into Zak, a man with Down Syndrome who escaped a retirement home so that he could train under this pro wrestler who runs a school. Instead of parting ways or helping him return home, Tyler decides to help Zak get to the wrestling school, even though he knows it’ll likely land him in more trouble than he’s already in as authorities and a couple of angry fishermen are chasing after them.
This journey that Tyler is thrust into with Zak is what the writer used to unpack the characters, specifically Tyler, a fatherless, hot-headed young man who cuts corners and never plays by the rules. He’s a rebel, which makes him cool, but it also makes him a failure without any real direction in his life. Tyler needs to learn how to take responsibility, which he finds by taking responsibility for another person’s life.
When Tyler finds Zak who is in need of help, he decides to take him under his wing to become the father Tyler never had, teaching Zak valuable life lessons and supporting his efforts to achieve his lifelong dream. And by doing this, the main character learns how to be responsible in his own life.
That’s why The Peanut Butter Falcon was such a great movie because the characters were unpackable with interesting characteristics that allowed us to explore these questions of accepting responsibility and the importance of having role models.
But…What if the characters weren’t designed like this? What if Zak was just an average young man traveling to meet this pro wrestler? What if Tyler was already responsible, holding a nice steady job with a fiance and a down payment on a house? Would there even be a story? Well, you can certainly make one, but if your characters possess nothing to unpack, explore, or grow/fail to grow from, then you better damn well make sure you have a REALLY interesting plot!
You don’t need strong, unpackable characters to have a good story, but if that is the case, then you really need to focus on making your plot as fascinating as possible. Die Hard is a classic example of having weak characters with a very strong plot. I mean seriously, try analyzing John McClain. You can say he’s a rough and tough cowboy cop who doesn’t follow the rules and gets into a lot of trouble because of this.
You can also say that he has an alcohol problem and an estranged daughter that he struggles to be with. But beyond that, you probably can’t dig deeper into the character because the writer didn’t bother crafting one that can learn or fail to learn how to live a better life. So with John McClain, there really isn’t much to unpack beyond what’s shown to us in the first 5 minutes of the film.
Yet, the movie was still wildly successful because the plot was so fascinating, it carried us through the story and kept us entertained. There were guns, explosions, huge fight scenes, daring escapes, and cut-throat moments of extreme intensity.
It was so exciting, we didn’t care to know that much more about John McClain. It was fine enough to just know that he was a bad boy cop who got the job done using whatever means necessary.
Now imagine a main character like John McClain journeying through the plot of The Peanut Butter Falcon. Unless you add in the guns and explosions, the story would likely be pretty boring because, unlike Tyler, John McClain would likely take Zak to the police as soon as he ran into him or just leave him to fend for himself because he’s suffering from a massive hangover and doesn’t want to deal with any “Bullshit”.
Tyler needs to learn responsibility from having a fatherless upbringing, so a deep part of him would feel compelled to take Zak under his wing as his father should have. But John McClain doesn’t need to learn anything, so there wouldn’t be any compulsion to help Zak unless he’s being kidnapped by a bunch of crazy terrorists.
Plot and Character-Driven Stories
But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t an either/or dilemma. You can and, in my opinion, should have both an interesting plot and characters to explore. Take the movie, Nightcrawler, as a good example. It’s character and plot-driven because the main character does carry a faulty outlook on life that they need to discover as a flaw in order to grow.
However because this fault makes him financially and politically more powerful within his industry, he doesn’t see the error in his outlook and continues to be the same person that he was at the beginning of the movie...Also, he’s probably a psychopath who can’t change, so there’s that.
Either way, the potential for character change is, at least, presented to the audience and all of this happens within a very exciting and unique set of circumstances that drives the main character through a plot that you just can’t look away from.
The writer managed to take advantage of both character and plot. Boy did it pay off as it’s one of the most memorable movies of the 21st Century. And there are plenty of other examples to point to that will also likely be remembered for a long time because of having both strong characters and plot such as The Dark Knight, Titanic, Fight Club, Unleashed, and many more.
So bottom line…If you want to make any story worth watching, above everything else, make sure you focus on either building strong characters or a strong plot that’s exciting and can keep you on the edge of your seat. But if you really want to hit it out of the park and actually give yourself a chance to do something great, DO BOTH and do them REALLY well. But never ever ever EVER make both your characters and plot uninteresting. Otherwise, the whole thing will be boring and will never get made!
Hope this musing was informative and as always, best of luck in your writing endeavors!
Story Prism, LLC