Friday, November 19, 2010

Plot or Character

How do you know if a story is character-based or plot-based? Maybe what I should be asking instead is how should a writer determine whether a story should be written as character-based or plot-based? I think a lot goes back to the inspiration for the story. Yesterday, I mentioned The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The selling point for that story is that it is about a guy who ages backwards. If that’s all you know about the story, you would be interested in it. I had no idea that it was a love story until I watched it. It didn’t surprise me that it was, since most movies have a love story in there somewhere, but that wasn’t the reason I wanted to watch it.

Contrast that with Die Hard, which is a plot-based story. If I tell you that it’s about a New York cop, you don’t have a great urge to go watch it. As great as the guys in the NYPD may be, they’re ordinary when it comes to stories. We aren’t particularly interested in how they handle ordinary situations, so until we know what the plot is about, we aren’t interested. Once we see that it’s about a guy taking back a building controlled by terrorists we become more interested.

So, look at why you want to write this story. Are you interested because you want to know more about a character you created or are you interested because you want to see certain events unfold? If it’s the character then the character will have a characteristic that forces him to experience the world differently from us. To highlight these aspects of the character, we actually want to avoid the more unusual actions that we might place in a plot. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, there are scenes in which the character is just sitting and having tea with a woman. It works in character-based fiction, but if you were to put a scene like that in Die Hard it would kill the movie. We don’t want the character sitting around discussing how he will do what he needs to do, he needs to take action.

Most romances are character-based. The plot is set in stone, so when you hear the fans talking about what they want to read they talk about different types of characters. “I want an Alpha male with a librarian.” Or whatever. But there’s also the premature marriage plot that appears in both romance and science fiction. It is a plot in which two people marry before they fall in love. It seems to work better as a plot-based story.

Mysteries can go either way. The Monk series was very much a character-based show. We laughed at the way Monk handled the ordinary things in life. But so often the gumshoe of a mystery is quite ordinary. Agatha Christie had some memorable detectives, but they were always secondary to the crime. Their specialness gave them access to the crime scene, but it was the nature of the crime and the actions of the cast of suspects that made the stories great.