Recently in a screenwriting class I am taking, the instructor discussed a list of key elements in storytelling, and in that list plot preceded character. A friend turned to me and said, “Character should come first.” I agreed with him, but for a long time I wondered why, in a screenwriting class, plot might come first. In my own writing, I try to put character before plot, because I believe that stories are a direct product of thoroughly developed stories.
However, I realized that there are countless examples of stories that put plot before character, and most of them, I think, tend to be blockbuster movies or out-of-this-world TV series. In plot-based stories, the conflict does not come from the characters; it comes from external forces, such as alien invasions, nameless monsters, the emergence of zombies, stock criminals, static gangsters, or in a post-9/11 world, faceless terrorists with no personality. For me, these stories tend not to be memorable. The characters don’t fight complex issues, face moral ambiguity, or struggle with self-doubt. Instead, these stories are driven only by a quota of bad guys to kill.
In contrast, it seems that characters themselves are what we remember most about stories. James Bond, for instance, is not a mindless thug but a charming, intelligent, and classy hero; the Daleks are terrifying villains because they remind us that each great society has attempted to exterminate a weaker one. The Dude in The Big Lebowski remains prophetic because he is the only calm figure in a world of fascists and nihilists. Jane Eyre’s wit amidst her plight continues to make her a compelling protagonist. Hamlet is still a pitied hero because he is effectively an angst-ridden teenager. Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation is a hero for our own time because of her valiant optimism when cynicism is the norm. Many young readers see themselves in Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, and I personally see what I want to become in Doc from Cannery Row.
I think that all great stories must be driven by character, and not just a ticking time bomb or the gradual buildup of generic bad guys. Characters execute the plot idiosyncratically. They alone have the power to turn the story around, reverse the trajectory audiences follow, and make decisions relevant to contemporary issues. The characters Bilbo Baggins and Smaug may simply be updated versions of David and Goliath, but they are household names because they are unique; they remind us of our extremes, insignificance and ego, and the courage and fear therein; and Bilbo makes a far more intriguing character because he has the option to stay home, or turn back, or steal from the Dwarves. Smaug is equally intriguing because he has already won long before the tale begins, but cannot resist inviting more conflict. These stories are truly great because their authors let the characters move the story, rather than the other way around.