The Symbiotic Relationship Between Character And Plot

clerksIt kind of aggravates me when people—writers included—differentiate between plot-driven and character-driven stories.

Basically, because character and plot are not mutually exclusive entities.

When people say character-driven, they usually mean stories that feature characters sitting around and talking a lot. They think of these stories as basically plotless.

I’ve heard Kevin Smith’s film Clerks cited as plotless. Certainly, for a good portion of the film, characters do a lot of talking. They don’t go anywhere but the store where the main character is a clerk.

But . . . stuff actually does happen. And that’s all that plot means—what happens in a story.

For instance, main character Dante talks a lot about his ex-girlfriend Caitlin.

And then, Caitlin shows up.

That’s something happening. That’s plot.

An anti-smoking activist buys some coffee in the store and starts hectoring people who come in to buy cigarettes.

That’s something happening, that’s plot.

Dante talks to his current girlfriend, who blithely confesses to some of her sexual history—which shocks Dante and changes his relationship with her—and she totally doesn’t get why.

That’s plot AND character at work together.

So in the case of Clerks, while the plot is episodic, it still has a plot.

Plot doesn’t necessarily have to mean car chases or aliens landing from outer space or characters planning and executing a daring robbery. Plot can also have small, quiet events–which can still have a big impact on the characters.

Plot-driven usually means that characters react to what happens in a story and act only in ways that suit the plot. For instance, a bunch of characters who are wimpy suddenly and bravely face down a hoard of attackers, shooting them with guns—without ever having picked up a gun in their lives.

AND THEY’RE SUCCESSFUL.

Then later, if it suits a plot point, they become craven cowards again.

That’s obviously an exaggeration, but it illustrates the point. Characters only behave according to what the plot dictates at a certain point in plot-driven stories.

This kind of storytelling usually results in readers and audiences rolling their eyes and wishing they had saved their money for some other form of entertainment.

But some people who claim they write plot-driven stories just mean they enjoy writing stories with big, noisy events, instead of quieter, smaller events. They think character is not as important to that kind of story, but I would disagree with that. Some of the most memorable characters are in grand stories that have plots full of big events.

Instead of looking at story as plot-driven vs. character-driven, I suggest looking at plot and character as having a symbiotic relationship. One feeds the other. This would be regardless of whether a plot has a ton of big events, or less action and mostly quieter events, such as in Clerks (though it does have one big and shocking event).

Let’s take an example from history as an illustration of what I mean. King Henry VIII famously changed the course of European history because he insisted on dumping his first wife Katherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, in the hopes of begetting a legitimate male heir. Because the Catholic Church refused to grant him a divorce, he broke with the Church.

I’ve often thought that if Henry had been a different sort of person, this would never have happened. Another king might have stood by his first wife, even though he had no male heir. Another king might have become tired from wrangling with the Church and given up after a while. Another might have never been susceptible to the charms of an ambitious woman like Anne Boleyn in the first place. Another might have married off his only daughter very young in the hopes of gaining a grandson as his heir. And so on.

So Henry’s character most certainly had a profound impact on shaping history.

But what would have happened if we could change one or more of the EVENTS he was reacting to when he changed history?

Such as, if one or more of Katherine of Aragon’s sons had survived infancy. Henry’s motivation, he claimed, was that he desperately needed a male heir to prevent civil war. If he had had legitimate sons, that motivation disappears.

Or if his brother Arthur hadn’t died and had become king instead of Henry.

Or if the Church had refused to give Henry permission to marry Katherine, who had been his brother’s widow (something that played a huge role in Henry’s quest for a divorce).

Or Anne Boleyn had been content to be just his mistress.

Or the Pope had agreed to the divorce.

Or Katherine had agreed to the divorce and retired to a convent.

Now the story changes and the outcomes most likely would change. In the first three instances, would he still have fallen for Anne Boleyn? Maybe. But it’s far less likely that he would have changed the course of history because of her.

I must point out that the last three examples are of characters being made weaker to suit a weaker story. Characters easily giving the protagonist what they want will cut a story off at its knees. There is no question that one reason this chapter of history excites people’s imaginations to this day is because many of the characters involved were implacable, complex individuals.

But again, if we change outside events, the story becomes something quite different.

Now I’m going to skip to another historical event altogether—Hurricane Katrina. (Bet you never thought you’d come across a blog post that links the movie Clerks with Henry VIII and Hurricane Katrina!) Just before it hit New Orleans, I was discussing with some of my co-workers the preparations—or lack of them—even though the city had almost been hit with a catastrophic hurricane not that long before Katrina, and it had been pointed out then that their emergency plans were woefully inadequate. If they knew it could happen, why had they not made more preparations since then, I asked?

“Because people are reactive,” answered one of my co-workers.

I think she hit on something very true, and it’s true of characters in a story, too. They can be bouncing along just fine—or maybe not so fine— before the story opens, but then SOMETHING happens to shake up the status quo, something that forces them to react, then to act. In the best stories, the way they react and act are very specific to the characters.

Even if you’re a “panster” (make up plot as you go along) it’s still important to keep in mind how your characters are going to react and act in the face of events you throw their way. That’s the symbiotic relationship between character and plot.

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6 thoughts on “The Symbiotic Relationship Between Character And Plot

  1. Loved your analysis of Henry 8th’s dilemma – his father of course was fresh out of the Wars of the Roses which had split the country for forty years or so.. but Henry was a nasty piece of work anyway !!!!…

    1. Thank you! Definitely, the precariousness of the Tudor claim to the throne was another thing that motivated Henry–that’s why he dispatched so many courtiers with royal blood. He was in many ways a monster, but he had the extraordinary ability to convince himself he was the righteous one in any given situation. He also believed himself a good Catholic to the end of his life. I think he would have shaken things up no matter what events shaped his life. Fascinating character!

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