317 – Plot and Character Are Not Enemies

Plot and character, the eternal enemies. Everyone knows that if your story has a plot, it means your characters are one-dimensional clichés, and if you have deep characters, it means your plot is non-existent. Will these two wild kids ever reconcile? Yes, they will, because character and plot are not enemies. In fact, they go together like peanut butter and chocolate. In this episode we’ll prove it by looking at what people actually mean when they say “character driven,” how plot actually strengthens character, and how it’s conflict all the way down.

Transcript

Generously transcribed by Nichole. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Voiceover: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…

Chris: Chris

Oren: and

Wes: Wes

Oren: {Fight announcer voice]

And place your bets folks, place your bets. We got a good fight for you today. We got plot versus character. Two cornerstones of modern storytelling into the ring. One cornerstone of modern storytelling exits the ring, shortly after the other cornerstone of storytelling exits the ring after being declared the winner.

Chris: This is basically a therapy session for Oren.

Oren: I’m so mad.

Chris: Like, okay Oren. Tell me more about how the bad people hurt your feelings. [Laughter]

Oren: They did. It was bad. Okay. I see all these posts about how I want a character-driven story that doesn’t have any plot or this story has too much plot and that meant it didn’t have any characters or whatever. And if people treat them like they are opposing values, to have more of one, you have to have less of the other. And it’s just not true. It’s, that’s just a fake, it’s false. And not only is it false, it’s a bad concept because it means that people mis-categorize what it is they liked a story in the first place. And mis-attribute things that are actually good or bad to the wrong story. And so what I think this is coming from is that people, when they say character-driven, in my experience, what they usually mean is that it has very little external conflict. In my experience, that’s usually what people mean when they say character-driven.

Chris: So if I were to have a big action plot, but it only moves forward when the main character is proactively disrupting things to vent their angst. That’s not character-driven. Because there happens to be shooting in it.

Oren: No, I’m saying that that could be. I’m saying people are using the term wrong because when people say character-driven, they almost always are referring to books, like A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet or Fruits Basket, the anime. But what I would argue actually defines those books or those stories isn’t being character-driven because different stories have different levels of how much the characters are driving the story. And how deep the character exploration is. What makes those stories distinct is that they have very little external conflict or in the case of Small Angry Planet they have very little external conflict until they’re suddenly a really big one. And then it’s gone and we don’t talk about it anymore. [Laughter]

Because of this people imagine that if you have a lot of plot, like if your plot is big and exciting that your characters are going to suffer, but that’s just not true. What you do ideally is you figure out ways to make the character work with the plot and they work together. And they’re almost the same thing. Storytelling is too big to conceptualize all at once. So we break it down into categories, but that can have the effect of people assuming these things aren’t really related. It’s like, talking about whether a body is heart-driven or lungs-driven. Those are things that you need both. You need both of them.

Chris: Going back to the terms, character-driven, and plot-driven. Are people using those as synonyms for this story that has a lot of character and little plot? And this story has a lot of plot and little character? Because when I hear the word driven, what I assume is it’s about the movement in the story, but that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the way that people are using those terms.

Oren: I mean sort of, but also no. And this is why I brought up Angry Planet and Fruits Basket because Angry Planet actually doesn’t have very much character in it. The characters get very little development. They are around a lot and they talk a lot, but they don’t really move and they aren’t really complex. There’s a little bit of development on Lovey the AI and whether or not she’s going to choose to get a body or not. And then Rosemary has one scene where she gets over being guilty about her dad and she and Sissix are in a romance suddenly.

Chris: Not a very well-developed romance. Yeah. It’s all…

Oren: Right. It’s not very well developed and the other characters are all like that, right? Like suddenly in one scene, the engineer character Kizzy I think is her name, feels like she isn’t good under pressure. Which is weird cause she was just super good under pressure, but then she resolves it by talking to another character. And the captain kind of gets a little more okay with his girlfriend going on dangerous missions, but he was only a little, not okay with it before. So there’s actually very little character in the supposedly character-driven story.

And what I think is happening is people are seeing the superficial element of it having a little external conflict. And assuming that means it must be character-driven when what they actually like about it is that its light. Whereas take something like Fruits Basket, Fruits Basket is not always light. Fruits Basket can get very dark, but Fruits Basket is also described as character-driven. And the reason it’s described that way is because it doesn’t have much external conflict, but it does have a lot of character because it has internal conflicts. It has lots of plot. Fruits Basket has a plot all over the place. It’s just the plot is inside. The plot was inside you the whole time. [Laughter]

Wes: No

Oren: Fruits Basket we have Tohru who will she choose romance? That’s a plot. We have, Kyo struggled to value himself. That’s a plot. You have Yuki recovering from his abuse. That’s a plot. Those are all plots. They’re just internal plots. They aren’t external. And so calling it a story that has character rather than the plot is just, it is just incorrect. It is just not the right thing to say.

Wes: How are those internal plots different from internal arcs? They’re synonyms?

Chris: Same thing. Some storytelling terms are used differently by different people. At Mythcreants when we say plots and arcs and threads and lines, those are all synonyms for each other. We just have lots of different words for that one thing.

Wes: Yeah, cause I’m, I’m definitely picking up on the linguistic hiccups that are probably happening here because a lot of times plot is predominantly described as just a sequence of events connected by causing and effect. And that’s distinct from an arc, which is an interior.

Chris: Right. Wes, arcs are traditionally used for internal arcs, right? Like character arc, for instance, that is an arc. Right. But we would also say external arc because they’re the same thing. The only difference is that one is about emotions and the other is about external threats for instance. But they’re both basically conformed to the same structure and work in pretty much the same ways. And so we just, again, we call all of those arcs or we call them plot lines or we call them plot threads. Yeah. [Laughter]

Some of our different language comes from the fact that we’ve been writing for a while now, and our ideas on language have evolved over time. [Laughter] So we’ve used different things. Right now, I use the word arcs a lot and then more and more using the word arcs because I like the fact that it implies a specific shape and structure that line doesn’t.

Oren: So I have a whole post on writing character-driven stories and I usually recommend that people use an external plot just because it’s easier to get readers interested in an external plot. It’s not like you have to, you can get readers interested in internal conflicts. But it’s just harder, but there are so many great stories that use external conflicts to get really deep into characters.

If you watch TV, Deep Space 9 is one. The characters on Deep Space 9 are so deep and that’s all driven by external conflict. The writers like to create an external conflict, tie it to some internal problem the character is having, and they use that as a way to make you care about the character. And look character and plot working together, living in perfect harmony. If you want a book, I would recommend The Curse of Chalion. Also extremely deep into character. It’s basically a character study of Caz as he becomes less self-hating.

Chris: As he recovers, basically from his trauma.

Oren: As he recovers from his trauma. It’s great. And it has a strong, external conflict. So both of those have plots. Those all have plots. It’s all plots. It’s plots all the way down.

Chris: Again at Mythcreants we also…Going back to what you were saying Wes about arcs and the association with the word arc with a character arc. Again we feel like that character arc is really just structured the same way you would structure, you know, an arc that’s about people shooting each other. Right. And so what I was saying, yeah it’s all plot. That’s, that journey that, that character went on that was focused on their feelings and emotion was character-driven or character-centered, is also plot.

Wes: I mean, I was fascinated to hear everything Oren has said, especially when he pitched the idea because I’m less familiar with this. As far as I’m concerned if somebody says it’s a plot-driven story, that I’m just gonna understand that, “Oh, okay, the external plot is the primary focus.” There still is character stuff, you know. And if it’s a character-driven story, the characters take the primary focus. There’s still an external plot. I never kind of thought that some people would be saying that there wouldn’t be, but I mean, I like the idea that it can be hand in hand, but I think probably in practice, one is going to take up more screen time as it were.

Chris: Well, that is possible, I mean, we’ve talked previously about multitasking. Just calling them inverse isn’t really correct because it takes off the pressure to multitask. And to come up with external arcs and internal arcs that work together really well. Usually, the instruction I usually give people is, “Okay, what is it that you want your character problem to be? What challenges are they facing? Now make sure your external conflicts forced the issue. Right?”

If they are having trouble trusting people, make sure they go through an external problem that they can’t solve without trusting somebody. Right. If they need to be more, open-minded make them face an external problem that requires them to be open-minded. And so then we get that nice juncture where they’re working together. And we’re doing multitasking where it’s always possible for story elements to compete with each other on some level. If you have half of the story taken up by scenes that are just fight scenes, where people aren’t talking, it’s just a lot of shooting and car crashes, that may not have tons of character development in it.

Wes: Right. And I guess that’s kind of my point. I think writers have, you know, some preferences in certain ways. And so at the end of the day, there’s only so many words and it’s going to lean.

Oren: It will, absolutely.

Wes: But to think that you do one at the expense of the other is kind of asinine.

Oren: So what I’m trying to get across here is that the presence of an external conflict is actually independent of whether or not the story has a plot. Because the story can have a plot. It can be a lot of different things. It can be an external conflict. That’s usually the easiest way to do it. But again, plots can also be internal conflict and that is where you’re going to get your character development going. But a story that doesn’t have either, which is why I brought up Angry Planet, is not character-driven. People think it’s character-driven because they’ve been trained to associate the lack of an external conflict with character-driven stories, because in some cases if you don’t have a big external conflict that does leave you more time to focus on the internal ones. And that’s one of the reasons why Fruits Basket has so many internal conflicts, is because it doesn’t have any time to spend on an external one. It just can spend them all on internal conflict, but those are still plots, right? They’re just internal plots.

Chris: Another story that I think again, merges them really well is I would say All Systems Red. The first book in the Murderbot series. And this the Murderbot books, they are actually, when it comes to the external conflict, they are episodic, right? We pretty much, I mean, there’s some things that tie over the next book. For the most part, we solve the big external problem in each book, but it has slow character growth throughout. And it’s that character journey that kind of unites them together. And the first book has a lot of action but also dwells on its main character a lot. And the main character’s feelings a lot. Um, and so there’s, there’s definitely not an inverse relationship there. It manages to do both very well, but again, you’re right that there’s only so much page space, but what Oren is saying is that, when we have that character dream, that’s also the plot.

Oren: In movies, for example, movies, you tend to get a lot of movies that have an external conflict that they give all the time, too, at the expense of any internal conflicts. And sometimes these movies are good, like The Matrix, and sometimes they’re less good, like the Fast and Furious. Uh, which is just, you know, not as good a movie as The Matrix, hot take.

The Matrix has very simple character arcs, like internal character conflicts. It’s got Neo’s development into believing in himself. He has to learn to believe in himself. Uh, and then that allows him to fly. So he’s basically a fairy, now that I say that. And you know, Trinity has a little bit of a thing going where she sort of falls in love with Neo, a little if you squint real hard, you can see it. But The Matrix is a movie, it has a very limited amount of time. And so they chose to focus almost all of it on the external conflict of Kung Fu fighting The Agents.

And in a novel that had more time, you would almost certainly have had more internal character conflict because otherwise, it would be very boring because these characters would just be around forever and never changing. Uh, you know, we talked to this a little bit in the flat podcast, a while back, where the longer characters around the more people will expect them to have some kind of internal arc, because otherwise, it’s just like, well, they’ve just been here forever and they’re always one note.

Chris: Um, I will say another reason why people tend to think that plot and character are opposed is because they see what happens when bad character choices made by the storyteller are motivated by trying to get the plot to work. Right. And so if there is a plot hole and an order to cover for that, the storyteller just makes the characters do things that just don’t make sense. They don’t have good motivation. They’re out of character. They’re inconsistent with the character, they tend to assume that somehow this is like a plot versus character battle. When what really, what happened is that the plot was weak. It wasn’t like the plot took over the character, it’s that the plot had problems and the character was compromised to try to fill that plot hole. And they went burning down together. Whereas, if the plot had been better, that wouldn’t have been an issue.

Oren: Right. So just for reference from now on, anytime you treat plot and character like they’re an opposition, you’re saying that the Game of Thrones finale had a good plot. So don’t, don’t do that.

Chris: The Game of Thrones finale does not have a good plot. [Laughter]

Oren: No, but that, but that is the one that everyone was talking about. There was a, you know, after the three-day, the glorious three-day period where everyone was just unified and understanding exactly what was wrong with it, the hot takes came. And one of the hot takes was, “Oh, well this is what happens when you spend too much time on your plot.” And it’s like, “no, they didn’t spend enough time on their plot.” Their plot was very bad. And as a result, their characters suffered because it’s all the same thing. If your heart starts to give out your lungs are not going to keep going like nothing happened. [Laughter]

Chris: Conversely, we have some people who are saying, “Oh, well, you know, I can’t have any progress on my plot because this is just what my character would do, which is nothing.”

Wes: Then don’t include it.

Chris: Well, I think that the storyteller’s job is to look into that character and see what stimulus would motivate them. Right. What stimulus would get them moving, would change them, what have you. And if the idea that a person would never change under any circumstances, is obviously there’s something, there’s not nothing. So, you know, this whole herding cats concept, you’ve got, okay, once you know your character really well, it actually becomes easier to do that.

Easier to build a plot around that character, because these are my character’s personal issues. This is their sore point. Okay. Now I’m going to bring in a plot stimulus that hits them right there and they’re going to react. Right. And that takes knowing the character well.

Once again, a good like dynamic understanding of your character as a deep and changing person helps you build a plot that works for that character. But yeah, that’s another reason why people think that plot and character are enemies when they’re not.

Oren: Right, I mean, it’s like if your character, if you’re having a problem moving the story forward because your character wouldn’t do the thing that you need them to do. Then, your options are to either craft a different plot that will work with that character or change the character. Those are your options. It’s gotta be one or the other.

Chris: [Shocked voice] Change my character.

Wes: Gasp

Oren: And you know, both are valid, right? If your character can’t be changed, you can make a different plot. That’s a thing. Find the plot that works with the character. That’s how it’s got to work. Okay. You can’t have the heart and the lungs fighting. It’s just not going to work out.

Chris: Yeah. Obviously, at Mythcreants we don’t get precious about our characters. You know, for instance, we want them to be likable. We talk about, “Hey, maybe you can make your character a little more, either sympathetic or selfless to make them likable”. So there’s no “gasp” over I’m making alterations to the characters.

Oren: Well, I mean, I’ve just gotten darn good at hiding it. [Laughter]

Chris: That’s true.

Oren: Look, I hate changing anything. Okay. I love all of my words are beautiful and perfect and I don’t want to change them, but you know, I do anyway. Cause that’s what you gotta do sometimes. I just want to get to a point where I will stop hearing character-driven as a synonym for boring. Cause that’s where I am right now. Every time anytime someone says character-driven, I’m like, “Oh. What you mean is that it doesn’t have much happening.” And because you’ve identified the lack of external plot and assumed that it must be character-driven, but lacking an external plot doesn’t mean it has good internal plots the way that Fruits Basket does. Because internal plots are very hard. More often than not, when a story is lacking an external plot, it’s also lacking an internal plot. And then the characters aren’t driving anything. They’re not changing. They’re just around. They’re just all there.

Chris: Right. And a good thing to keep in mind is that a internal plot is compelling, intense for basically the same reasons as an external one is right. You have a problem. And it has to, there has to be consequences that matter if that problem is not solved. Right. So it’s like, “why does this situation matter? Why is it a problem?”

If the character, for instance, doesn’t trust people and that’s their problem that needs to change, why does that matter? What are the consequences that could happen if they don’t learn to trust people, right? How will that negatively affect them? And whether that matters also, you know, it depends on their likeability.

The more we get the audience to care about this character, the more that it matters, if they don’t want to trust people. Because that negatively affects them. For instance, that is one of the tricky things about, internal arcs internal plot is that it does depend on a higher level of attachment to the character. It’s a lot easier to get people to care about a city being destroyed. Right. Because people will understand, “Oh yeah, lots of people dying that’s bad”. Right. But then when you lower the stakes down to like, “Hey. Can this character recover from their trauma?” That depends on caring about their character and caring about whether that character will recover from their trauma. So it’s really important to bond with that character.

Oren: The reason that Fruits Basket goes so out of its way to make Tohru like the most likable character you could find, that’s all it’s got for a while. And then it also has a lot of novelty with the animal spirits cause the characters can turn into animals sometimes. And that also kind of helps. But if it didn’t have those things, if you don’t like Tohru, then nothing about Fruits Basket is going to work.

Chris: Just to go into a little bit about what the show does. In the first episode, if you haven’t seen Fruits Basket, Tohru is living in a tent, talking to a photo of her dead mom. [Laughter]

Oren: Oh, no.

Wes: Oh gosh.

Chris: Just like the optimum, but like, she’s also very, very positive about it and she’s like “I’m going to make you proud of me mom”. And it’s just like, Oh my God the cinnamon roll. The sympathetic cinnamon roll. But yeah, that’s the first episode, we discover that it goes out of its way to make her super sympathetic, but also to make her very overly kind and selfless in her behavior towards other people. So you definitely care about Tohru before the whole thing gets going and that’s what makes it work.

Wes: So if somebody is looking to sit down to write a story. We probably should just then advise them, focus on everything, or should they try to build one of the two? It’s, I’m trying to escape a binary, but it seems like you need to build the entire ship at once, but you can’t. And so what parts do you pick first and, we talked about character and motivation, but if the plot forces decisions on a character, then the readers should know how the character arrived at the decision that they made. And so, how do you recommend that? [Laughter]

Chris: We actually talked about, if you remember Wes, in our previous podcast about developing story ideas.

Wes: Yes. Let me go listen to that real quick. [Laughter]

Chris: Right. But the idea is that you can start anywhere and you know, it has to. Again, when I think of a story I think about looking at the whole thing holistically. Some people are discovery writers who don’t know what they’re writing until they get done writing it out to see where they’re going with it. And then they have to go back and kind of rethink it. But if you are planning at some level and most people plan at least a little bit, you start with what you’re interested in, and then you find out where that fits. Is it, is it the character’s internal journey? Is it an external conflict? Is it some piece of the world? And then you build other things around to support that. Right. And then hopefully once you’re done with that process, you already have an internal arc and an external arc that mesh with each other.

Some people aren’t going to want to do that combo. Some people are going to want to just, they don’t like external conflicts that much, and they want to focus on their internal arcs. I do think that in most cases it’s just beneficial to have both. They compliment each other really well. External conflict keeps things moving and it makes it easier to create tension. And the internal conflict gives you a break from the action and adds emotional meaning and depth. And that’s just easiest. It’s not that people, yeah I can’t do other things.

Wes: Yeah, no, that makes sense. I mean, you’re saying “Hey, things will happen in your story.” Please make things happen. And then your characters need to respond to the things that happen.

Chris: Yeah. Now things can happen with just, as we were saying with Fruits Basket, things do happen in external arcs. So if you want nothing but relationships and character growth and those types of emotional plot, things can still happen. The plot can still move, but it admittedly is more challenging for the storyteller, because again for your audience to care, they have to be more attached to your character than they would for an external conflict. And most people just have more trouble coming up with things that move the story and plot points if it’s all internally focused, it feels fuzzier to people. Right.

You can do the same things. It’s just having both is just an easier way to do it and works well in a wide variety of situations. And there’s also not like, you can have both and focus a little bit more on the internal arcs. You just have to be careful because in some cases, you’ll have an external plot that’s like “doom is at hand”. And then like five scenes where the characters like, “Oh, I know doom is at hand, but let’s have dinner together and talk about our feelings”. And it’s like, “Okay, but the doom is at hand. Why, why aren’t you paying attention to doom?”

Oren: I’d say one of the most common issue that my clients have in this area is that they have an external conflict and they have an internal conflict. They just don’t know how to make them work together. So changing some details so that I’m not specifically talking about this story, but this is based off of a couple of stories that I’ve edited. I had a hypothetical manuscript where the protagonist just learned that they were a wizard and they had to learn to do wizard magic because if they didn’t then something bad was going to happen. Their arch arch-nemesis was going to come kick their butt. If they didn’t learn how to do wizard magic, real good.

Chris: This is a very compelling opening.

Oren: Right. But they also had a thing where they had this like really deep wound, a really deep emotional wound from this time that their sibling betrayed them. But this isn’t related to the wizard storyline. And so those two things are working against each other. As a result, what you ended up with is a story where it does feel like character and plot are in opposition because anytime the character is like, “Okay, I got to do some wizard training” and does a wizard training montage. It’s like, “Well, what about the sister? Where was that component? What about that sister thing? It was compelling. And she betrayed you, but like, you still love her. What’s up with that.” And then anytime that the character went to be like, “I need to figure out how I feel about my sister. It’s like, isn’t that wizard going to come to kick your butt. Shouldn’t you be training?”

Chris: The obvious solution is to make the sister the wizard that’s going to come to kick your butt.

Wes: Definitely. Yeah.

Chris: Right?

Oren: Sometimes it literally is that simple.

Chris: Sometimes it’s not that simple, but sometimes it is that simple.

Oren: I’ve got, I’m glad that you, you got where I was going with this. I’m glad we’ve reached that level.

Chris: It goes back to multitasking. Right? We were talking about, making it so that everything is like, your story is consolidated. Everything is tightly connected and it’s easier to focus more than one thing at a time.

Oren: All right. Well, with that example, I think we will wrap things up because while plot and character may not be enemies, time limits and podcasts are. So we have reached the end of ours. I appreciate everyone coming to my rant session, where I yell about this term that I don’t like. This is what you eventually reach when you run a writing podcast with some excellent, fine people. So those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.

Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo she lives at the Rambo geeks dot com. We’ll talk to you all next week.

Voiceover: If you enjoyed this podcast and want to slip us some gold-pressed latinum. Head on over to patrion.com/mythcreants. We appreciate it.

Voiceover: This has been the mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Colton.

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