Last week, I watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The movie was inspired by the F. Scott Fitzgerald story. The movie is about some morally bankrupt characters, which probably says more about the writers than it says about the story, but we don’t need to go into that. The thing that makes this movie worth talking about here is that it is a great example of character-based fiction. I’m sure that you are aware that there is something of a debate over whether character-based fiction or plot-based fiction is better. It isn’t a debate so much as a matter of personal preference. Each has its place, but some people prefer reading character-based fiction and some people prefer reading plot-based fiction. I don’t think we can say that one is better than the other, only that they are different.
The first thing that we notice about the movie as an example of character-based fiction is that the characters are unusual. Benjamin Button was born an old man and aged backwards. There’s nothing ordinary about that. The other characters are somewhat more ordinary, but we still see unusual aspects to them. We needn’t be too concerned with that since the main character is Benjamin Buton.
The second thing we notice is that this is a story about a sequence of ordinary events as seen from the perspective of an extraordinary character. The story begins with the birth of Benjamin Button and the death of his mother. Having a woman die in childbirth isn’t a particularly interesting plot device. It happens. It is quite ordinary. But because Benjamin Button is born an old man, he is old and wrinkled. He is quite hideous. His father, believing the child is a monster, is ready to throw the child in the river, but because a policeman is watching, he leaves the child on the steps of a house, that turns out to be an old folk’s home. This whole sequence of events is driven by the nature of person Benjamin Button is.
As the story progresses, we see Benjamin Button experience life. He goes to work. He goes to war. He falls in love. He has a child. It’s all ordinary stuff that ordinary people experience. The thing that makes this stuff interesting is that Benjamin Button is not an ordinary character. When he experiences these things, it is different from the way we experience them or imagine we would experience them. We’re drawn into the story because we want to see those differences.
That’s pretty much the formula for character-based fiction. Start with a character that is unusual. Then put that character through a sequence of events that the reader can imagine himself doing. It is the difference between the way your reader would handle the event and the way your character would handle the even that makes the story interesting.