The film industry finds life a lot simpler if it divides stories into two categories: A script is either plot-driven or it is character-driven.
The Plot-Driven Story
A plot-driven story is one in which the events take precedence over the characters; characters become secondary to the action.
The easiest way to identify a plot-driven story is to look at the main character. Plot-driven characters are essentially static: They’re the same at the end of the film as they were at the beginning. They’re frozen as a sort of mythic or archetypal hero. James Bond never changes (except faces, now and then); Indiana Jones never changes; and nether do the basic stock of characters played by Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme or any of the stable of action heroes. What’s important is that good triumphs over evil and that justice is served.
Plot-driven films are works of the body rather than of the mind. The audience gets restless when people talk too much or sit still for too long. The movie experience is visceral rather than intellectual. These films speak to our unconscious needs, whether it be the triumph of love or revenge. We don’t want to think; we want to feel these movies.
A good action film is kinesthetic. Technically, kinesthesia is the sensation of position and movement in the viewer’s body as it’s perceived through the nerve ends in our muscles, tendons and joints. If you’ve ever seen the high-speed car chase in Bullitt with Steve McQueen or the runaway ore car sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then you know what I’m talking about. The point of view is so engaging that you’ll find yourself leaning into the curves and bracing yourself when the car torpedoes over a hill or around a curve.
The Character-Driven Story
The character-driven plot, on the other hand, concentrates attention on the people in the story rather than the action. Where plot-driven stories are physical, character-driven plots are emotional. Events are secondary to the people. An action hero is the same at the end of the film, but the hero (or anti-hero) of a character-driven film has undergone internal change by the end of the film. Instead of character following action, here character development predominates. We’re interested in what the characters do because their actions reveal who they are.
Interpreting action helps us understand the motives of people. In an action film, the characters are preshaped for us–we know who they are and what they stand for before we even begin. In the character film, however, we focus our attention on the people and try to understand the who, what and why of them. We never have to ask why James Bond or Indiana Jones does anything; we know their characters and motives by heart.
But the human condition is much more complex, and sometimes we want to explore this territory and try to learn what it means to be human. Certainty and righteousness give way to moral dilemma. Tolstoy pointed out that “real stories aren’t about good versus bad. Real stories are about good versus good”–people who find themselves caught up in situations that have no clear right or wrong answer.
A true moral dilemma provides the structure for a character-driven plot. It provides inspiration and energy. The plot-driven story has a moral dilemma as well, but it’s almost always bipolar, which means there are two choices: good or evil, right or wrong. But in a character-driven story, we’re on more uncertain ground. The audience shares in the dilemma. What would we do in the same circumstance?
The example I’m about to give you is from a college course in situational ethics. The problem takes on dimension not in the abstract, but in the concrete, when it has to apply to a person’s choice of how to act. That’s the substance of a character-driven story.
Here is the scenario: You’re a transplant surgeon. You’ve just received word that a heart is available for transplant from a donor who died in a car accident. Four of your patients are qualified for the transplant. They are:
* a 12-year-old girl, the only child of a middle-class family;
* a 37-year-old father of three teenagers who makes $12.75 an hour as a shipyard worker;
* a 42-year-old alcoholic, homeless woman;
* a 50-year-old man who is the CEO of a company that employs several hundred people (and, who, incidentally is willing to pay $250,000 for the transplant–money that could be used to help save other lives).
You’re responsible for choosing who gets the transplant. The person you choose will reveal a lot about who you are and the way you think. Your choice reflects your social biases. A valid, compelling and logical argument can be made for any of the four patients, and yet you must decide that one of the patients deserves the transplant most.
So in your character-driven script, you create a doctor, give her a name and a hospital, and put her to the test. We meet each of the four patients; suddenly they have names, pasts and presents, and it’s up to the doctor to decide their futures. She hates being forced into the role of playing God, and yet she must act. Whatever decision she makes, however much she agonizes over it, she will be simultaneously right and wrong. She must pay a price for whatever decision she makes: There is no clear way through this dilemma.
In a character-driven story we focus on the doctor. We want to know who she is and why she makes the decision she makes. We want to know what the decision does to her. Does the burden of such responsibility demoralize and crush her? Or does she rise through the chaos to become a stronger, more confident woman? The story becomes a testing ground for ideas; abstractions get faces, and what started as a mind game now takes on a deeper, more profound quality. Our doctor will be a different person by the end of the story. She’ll either grow or wither as the result of the experience. This is the true potential of a character-driven story.
Now It’s Time for You to Choose
Should you write a plot- or a character-driven story? There are good reasons for choosing either.
PRO: writing a plot-driven story
* The industry loves genre pictures; as a whole, they’re much more commercially viable than character-driven stories. (Translation: They make big bucks at the box office and are therefore easier to sell.)
* They tend to be formulaic in terms of structure and characters and therefore easier to write.
* They’re bigger-budget pictures and appeal to a wider audience than character-driven pictures.
* It’s easier to cast actors and directors for plot-driven stories.
* They pay a lot better than character-driven pictures.
CON: writing a plot-driven story
* They tend to be formulaic in terms of both structure and characters. (It’s tough to be original when the same film has already been written a thousand times.)
* The competition is fierce, and Hollywood favors big-name writers over no-name writers.
* Budgets for action pictures run from high to very high which further reduces the chances of selling your script.
* Plot-driven stories are less forgiving when it comes to plot weaknesses. They must be crafted extraordinarily well.
PRO: writing a character-driven story
* More freedom to explore complex issues and the nature of what it means to be human in our world.
* More freedom to explore your own personal agendas.
* Lower budgets mean lower financial risks, which increases the possibilities for selling your script–especially if you write a story in the low-budget range (between $5 million and $8 million).
* Certain actors and directors hunger for this kind of material. It showcases their talent, and some of them will work for minimums just to do a solid piece of work.
* Character-driven stories are more forgiving when it comes to plot deficiencies. Because our attention is focused on the characters, details of plot don’t seem as important as they do in a plot-driven story.
* A good character-driven story is always a good portfolio piece to show off your talent as a writer even if it doesn’t sell.
CON: writing a character-driven story
* Although Hollywood clamors for well-written character pieces, as a general rule they don’t do nearly as well at the box office as action films.
* The pay isn’t as good as it is for plot-driven films.