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Friday, 8 November 2019

Plot vs Character-Driven Stories


Whenever I set out to write a story, I almost always start with the character. There's a person that forms clearly in my mind, usually taken from human characteristics I find fascinating. Introvert vs extrovert, insecure vs relaxed, selfless vs greedy, intense vs carefree. Sometimes I think writers are psychoanalysts; we delve into people's heads and write about them.

Thus it should come as no surprise that my favourite books and movies are character driven: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gone Girl, American Psycho, A Song of Ice and Fire, Lolita. These stories all focus on one or two characters and their relationships, internal struggles and moral conflicts. Some character driven stories don't even have much plot. Patrick Bateman is some rich guy who struts around killing people (or fantasizing about doing so). Humbert Humbert is a poetic pedophile who runs off with a child. Eleanor Oliphant is a normal working woman who has endured some trauma we're slowly introduced to.

One of my favourite books of all time, Misery, takes place almost entirely in one room. Most of the story is poor Paul lying in bed thinking about how he's trapped with a psychotic nurse. And yet I find it to be one of King's finest; I've read it twice, and both times had me riveted. 

Consequentially, I'm not a fan of stories that focus on exciting and dramatic plots, because I care more about a character's internal struggle. A simple story line and lots of character development is enough to keep me hooked. This is why I'm not a major fan of Star Wars or most Marvel/DC action movies. In fact, my favourite Star Wars movie is The Force Awakens, and that places strong emphasis on the relationships between Rey, Finn and Han Solo and their internal struggles. 

Plot driven stories are typically filled with twists and turns and action-packed scenes. While this can be entertaining, it's not enough to keep me hooked. I need heart and soul and psychology. Recently I've been watching Star Trek: The Original Series. If it were based around people flying around in a spaceship enduring space adventures, I wouldn't have moved past the first episode. But upon watching The Cage and the ensuing pilot, I became hooked. Star Trek has exactly what I like in a story; simple story lines, exploring philosophical concepts, delving into human psychology and examining relationships between people. 

Star Trek is often compared with Star Wars, as Lord of the Rings is compared with Game of Thrones. Yet of course, these comparisons are rather poor, and tend to be made by those who are not deeply familiar with the shows or movies. Star Trek actually has little in common with Star Wars besides involving a flying spaceship and taking place in different planets. Each episode of ST asks a question; how does x affect us? What would life be like if x happened? 

SW has a clear plot arch; good guy has to defeat bad guy, and unexpected things happen along the way. ST says that there are good and bad in all of us (quite literally in Season 1 episode The Enemy Within). In this way, I'd say GOT has far more in common with ST because it deals with the same concepts (especially in the earlier seasons). Good and bad exists in us all, we have to overcome moral dilemmas, how should we live our lives. 

LOTR and SW are the same story set in a different genre. Likewise, Harry Potter covers the same Hero's Journey cookie-cutter plot, but what makes HP stand out is it is strongly plot and character driven. HP equally realizes both elements well. The characters are well developed and drive the plot, and there are lots of various sub-plots as well as the overarching plot. Perhaps this is why HP has so much universal appeal and outshines the others; its emphasis on plot and character, appeal to children and adults and balance between superficial and 'overly intellectual' makes it loved by a wider amount of people.

Nonetheless, the beauty of there being so many stories in this world is that there is something out there for everyone. All of us have differing tastes which is why there are some stories that are philosophical, some that are wacky and action-packed, some with few characters and some with many, some that are magical and some rooted in realism. Whether you like plot, character, or a strong mesh of the two, there's a book or movie out there for you to devour, darling.

My own books Every Last Psycho and Anne are incredibly character driven, with the former being comprised of two novellas that are character studies of two deeply troubled and psychologically damaged teenage girls (no, they are not based on me nor anyone in particular. I just enjoy studying and dissecting the human brain to the best of my ability). 

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