Why I Value Character Over Plot

I saw a movie a while back about a bunch of hit-men trapped in a warehouse after a botched robbery. The hit-men are trying to figure out who ratted them out. The whole movie takes place in a warehouse! The whole thing! We don’t even see the robbery, we only see a guy running from the robbery. There is one random scene at the beginning which took place at a restaurant, and another in a car, I think, but for the most part, the movie has one setting. By the end of it, we know who the rat is, but over all…nothing happens!

That movie is called Reservoir Dogs. It’s one of my favorites of all time. *cue Kanye*

“JJ, what is this sorcery? You just switched like a light switch.”

Allow me to explain, disembodied voice.

Reservoir Dogs is a story of such small scale, of such little consequence, yet it’s stellar. How? How can a story that largely takes place in one ugly-looking room be stellar? Lovely ladies and classy gents, the answer is character.

Character, for me, is the most important aspect of every story.

I understand why others disagree. I understand why others value plot over characters. Some want to read for what happens while others want to read for who it happens to. I fall into the latter category. Note, I understand that many may tilt their heads and ask, “Why would I have to decide? I like both.” I like both too, but there has been a long debate between the two, and so I’m weighing in on it.

Imagine this: a Mexican musician living in Detroit releases a couple of records in the early 1970s. His sales are pitiful. Then, in 1997, he wakes up to find that he’s actually sold more records than Elvis Presley…in South Africa. Little does he know that his politically charged, poetic lyrics have become rallying cries against apartheid. He doesn’t know about his explosion of fame because he isn’t receiving royalties. Word of mouth doesn’t reach him because people assume he had killed himself on stage while performing. Well, this man is known as Sixto Rodriguez, and he’s a real dude. A real, living dude. With a style often compared to that of Bob Dylan and a particularly remarkable first album (Cold Fact), he’s a man worth knowing. Rodriguez’ story is shared in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Check out the first lyrics to his song, “Rich Folks Hoax.”

The moon is hanging in the purple sky
The baby’s sleeping while its mother sighs
Talking ’bout the rich folks
Rich folks have the same jokes
And they park in basic places.

The priest is preaching from a shallow grave
He counts his money, then he paints you saved
Talking to the young folks
Young folks share the same jokes
But they meet in older places.

So don’t tell me about your success
Nor your recipes for my happiness
Smoke in bed
I never could digest
Those illusions you claim to have going.

~Sixto Rodriguez, “Rich Folks Hoax”

Rodriguez’ story is undoubtedly a fascinating one. I mean, does anyone find his story to be underwhelming? I wouldn’t think so. This man’s life’s plot has merits of its own, but I wouldn’t be sharing it with you if Rodriguez wasn’t who he was. Even after touring South Africa and Australia and the US and a host of other places where he eventually gained fame and fortune, he still, to this day, lives in his little apartment in Detroit. He’s soft spoken. He’s humble. He hardly seems fazed by his own staggering, unlikely story. It’s because of Rodriguez, the man, the character, that I chose to share his story. If the guy was an egotistical dufus, I wouldn’t give him the time of day.

If the most remarkable story ever told is written about the least remarkable of people, I simply won’t care. Think about it this way: if somebody you do not care for shares a crazy story about how he scaled Mount Everest in seven minutes or had a conversation with a gorilla, you might be mildly intrigued. Mildly. On the other hand, if your closest friend shares a remarkable story, you will be far more invested and interested in what your friend experienced. Why? Because your care about your friend! I would much rather a story be character-driven than plot-driven.

Reservoir Dogs is founded upon the strength of its characters and the dialogue between them, not its plot. Sure, the movie has a sound plot, but the movie’s heart lies with Mr. Orange, Mr. Yellow, Mr. Pink, and all the rest of ’em.

I figure I’ve made my point. I want to hear from you. Which do you prefer? Character-driven stories or plot-driven stories? Let’s talk in the comments below.

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

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59 thoughts on “Why I Value Character Over Plot

  1. A.S. Akkalon

    Instead of answering your question, I’m going to be annoying and ask you a question. 😉

    Do you think it’s possible to reveal character in any way other than through plot? The most fascinating character not doing anything isn’t going to come across as fascinating. The something he or she does is plot.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Not annoying at all, I like the challenge!

      I’ll answer your question by referring to a manuscript-in-the-works I am currently reading for a mentor/friend of mine. One of the earliest scenes in the manuscript takes places in an art gallery. Truth be told, I don’t remember what happens in the art gallery. What I do remember, however, is the main character’s ultra-focused perception of every detail. He goes on for lines and lines criticizing this man’s hamburger-looking mustache and this lady’s inhuman attachment to her phone. The plot doesn’t advance a whole lot through the chapter, but the character’s propensity to see and analyze the most mundane of things is the very thing that I continued reading for. This isn’t to say there is no plot–there is, I’m just featuring a snippet!–but I don’t think a great characters needs to be put through great circumstances to be great.

      I feel great characters can sit in one room for the duration of a story and be just as compelling as if they were off fighting space monsters. We’re talking about two extreme sides of a spectrum, of course. What’s your take?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. There are definitely excellent movies and books where setting and plot are minimized compared to the character development. Good character has depth and layers, which ultimately draw us in and we care. We want to care because we’re human and the character(s) is/are human. When we care, we want to know the outcome. It’s all part of the human condition.

      Chris C Barnett put the best words on it with “a plot-driven piece never completely draws me unless I’m invested in the characters.”

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Good point. I’ll add to my previous note, then, that I also enjoy characters in their own moments, whether anything is happening or not. It’s their traits, propensities, and quirks.

        I guess there are three ways of looking at it.
        1. The character in any given moment or in a discussion–habits, inclinations.
        2. The character’s responses–implies something happening to them. Here we get into some form of action/plot.
        3. The character’s actions–implies something the character is doing to the environment. Again, plot.

        However, with suspense, dialogue, or recall, not much has to physically happen, but things are going on in the minds–in the characters’ and the viewers’.

        Without a doubt, it is often through plot that we get to know a character. This is why I think it takes great skill to hold a reader’s or viewer’s attention through a story or movie with a single setting and little action.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. “Falls apart” is a great way to describe what happens. I initially expect I’m on board for a story with a compelling character. When the story transpires in a way contrary to that expectation, the thing…falls apart.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you need good characters to have a good story. Otherwise what is the point? I love when a character burns into the memory. The most recent example with a character from a book and film was Amy Elliott-Dunne in Gone Girl. And endlessly fascinating and layered character.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Character trumps every time. Now, people have different views on the types of characters they like, but it wins. The goal is the overlap of sympathetic characters with interesting plots. Great books do that. This is usually dressed through the conflict. It can be subtle, like in Dogs, or blatant like Die Hard, but when cool things or bad things happen to good people or bad people, audiences are far more invested.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I’ve heard a lot about “Reservoir Dogs,” but have yet to see it. I’ll have to keep an eye open for it. From your description it sounds similar to “12 Angry Men.”

    Personally, I prefer plot-driven stories (I was a huge fan of MadMax: Fury Road despite it having very little character growth or change), but I also love well-developed characters. I think a blend of the two is preferred. The trick is blending the two well without diluting the final product.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been meaning to watch 12 Angry Men! It’s about 12 jurors deliberating in a room, yes?
      I agree, a blend is ideal! I find it interesting that you mention MadMax: Fury Road. It is indeed an enjoyable film in spite of its, as you say, scant character development. Success is possible on both sides. Thanks for sharing your preference!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah wonderful post- I’m so indecisive about this myself that I often feel that I just say “I agree” to whichever argument comes my way- nonetheless, I have to say, I agree 😉 I think ultimately without good characters I cannot connect to a story- no matter how good the plot is!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am familiar with Exam! I haven’t seen it yet, but I do know it. It seems like this would be a great example of a character-driven film. When I get around to watching it, I’ll let you know how I liked it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Very interesting write-up. I love analyzing Character based movies, myself.
    ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ (2012) is a documentary, I’d love to see. Am yet to come across a good copy. I live in an aesthetically depressive country, where good movies are a rarity, and Arts in general is looked down on.
    Speaking of Character studies, you might like my latest review, on a film called ‘David & Lisa’ (1962). Also I’ll recommend films, like, ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ (1973), as well as it’s sequel ‘Saraband’ (2003). Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ has only two characters in the entire movie. Mike Nichols’ ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (1966) and ‘Closer’ (2004), are superb to do a character study on. My lists can go on ….
    ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992), has some very interesting characters, and is critically acclaimed; but am sorry to say, I really am not a fan of it. It just bored me, despite the great characters, and dialogues. Am yet to see a Tarantino film that I’d really love. ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009) was pretty good (especially love the cinematography), but still not great enough for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mate, thank you for your insightful comment. David and Lisa is an acclaimed film I have yet to watch, but I enjoyed your review for it nonetheless!

      If I remembered where I’d watched ‘Searching for Sugar Man,’ I’d share it with you, but it was a couple of years ago! I hope you can find a copy.

      Thank you for your film recommendations which feature ripe opportunities for character studies. And I understand that Tarantino isn’t for everyone. Have you seen Django Unchained? That’s my favorite of his.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No I haven’t seen, Django Unchained, yet either!!
        Nor have I seen Pulp Fiction (which is a movie, am really keen on checking out)!!!
        You are very welcome, being a film fanatic, I can go on with recommendations!! Ha!!
        Glad you liked my Blog-post, on David and Lisa!! Thanks!!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Pulp Fiction is a classic, of course, but I actually preferred Reservoir Dogs to it, and Django above that!
        You’re welcome, mate. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I love that everyone is talking about quality stuff to support this argument, but I’m going to have to ruin it a little bit 😀
    The first time I had this conversation was when a friend was defending the book Twilight to me. She LOVES characterization and, at the time, Twilight was her favorite book. The bad guy plot comes out of nowhere though. It is TERRIBLE. The whole series is like that. The only story telling is about the relationships and then BLAM-O! A crazy near-death climax (in every book).
    It is stories like Twilight that make me really appreciate plot mapping and proper rising action and all that. But, I also don’t think it has to be one or the other. Great character stories are great because they can create tension and a climax without an unexpected external event (murderous vampires). I definitely agree that most stories that are bad/fall short are lacking in good characterization. Action movies can be super fun, for instance, but if you don’t like or connect with the hero, it is just a bunch of explosions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The discussion is great, right R.Q.? Thanks for contributing your take.

      You make a compelling argument about some stories getting lost within its own characters and neglecting plot. I hadn’t considered that interpretation before. Just because Tarantino loves his small-scaled, dialogue-filled films doesn’t mean they’re always gold (see Hateful Eight)!

      I 100% agree with you when you say it doesn’t have to be one or the other (character or plot)! Of course, every writer should make every effort to strengthen both aspects of his/her pronoun. I took a side for the sake of argument! Great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think in general, I agree that characterization is more important too. Like I said, action films immediately spring to mind. I hate when a lot is going on but you don’t care about the characters. I mean, looking at the success of Twilight, one can hardly say that lack of a plot did much harm there, lol. So I guess in general, characterization wins 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Funny how important people are in our lives, be them fake or real. I guess it just comes down to being human and feeling the need for connection. Pretty weird to know we can be enthralled in staring at a screen for a good few hours even if it just means getting to know some random people that don’t even exist! You make a really interesting point about it not mattering really who the people are as well. Reservoir Dogs sounds really interesting, I’ll have to look out for it. Great post, great food for thought!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Sophie! Isn’t it crazy how we can become so invested in fictional characters? I understand why, but it’s still fascinating. Story is a powerful thing.

      Like

  9. Pingback: Why I Value Character Over Plot — J.J. Azar | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

  10. DUUUDE! Reservoir Dogs is one of my favourite movies of all time as well!!!! It’s also my first real screening of something done by Quentin Tarantino. Yes. I know. That’s crazy. But, right after watching Reservoir Dogs, I ended up watching every other movie that has brought fame to Tarantino and that showcased his immense talent in the movie business. I’m with you on this one. Character over plot ANYTIME! I always like to say that a character’s personality and existence is a story itself. IF that story isn’t compelling, I doubt the plot will be able to save me from not enjoying the movie (maybe just… save it from being a complete failure to my eyes). Great post dude! 🙂

    – Lashaan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Reservoir Dogs is a gem. I even prefer it to Pulp Fiction. How did you like Django? That, for me, may be my all-time favorite Tarantino film, with Dogs right below.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely loved Django Unchained! Waltz, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson were BRILLIANT in that movie. I’d have a hard time putting an order to the Tarantino movies that I loved. But Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Django Unchained and Kill Bill are definitely among the best movies out there (what a surprise, right?). I missed my chance to check out Hateful Eight in theaters though (I think the fact that so many movies came out around the same time made me want to wait for a Netflix release; still waiting by the way)! I hear that one ressembles a lot to a play. What did you think about that one?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s funny, because Hateful Eight is the first Tarantino film I saw in theaters! I enjoyed Hateful Eight. There are some great bits that are right up there with the syringe scene in Pulp Fiction and the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs. Great gags too (something involving nailing a door shut LOL!). Every performance is top notch of course. Writing is witty.

        This movie stood out in Tarantino’s filmography to be because of its sheer absurdity. All of his stuff is tongue-in-cheek, I think, but there is some twisted, wacky stuff in there. I cried in laughter at one Sam Jackson monologue in particular, literally cried where I had to settle myself down as to not disturb those around me, but my God. Tarantino’s a messed up dude lol.

        The issue I had with Hateful Eight was that it dragged. As intriguing as it was, some of it felt self-indulgent. Also, I couldn’t understand the Mexican dude’s accent. Anywho, check it out, and when you see it, please let me know what you think!

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, sorry… and yet you were so wrong.

        I fall into the smaller cohort of people that finds Tarantino movies … repellant.

        Maybe I’m old fashioned but I have a tolerance for swearing similar to the health-bar in games like Gears of War. If there’s constant swearing I’ll find something else to watch.

        Profanity, vulgarity and violence should all be contextual, not thematic.

        Have you seen Snowpiercer? Although I don’t normally go for political-toned movies, I really enjoyed Snowpiercer for its plot-twist.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I’m sorry Dogs didn’t do it for you. I understand your point about Tarantino. He doesn’t provide for a comfortable watch by any means (though there is a certain sort of crowd and circumstance which could provide for something close to it).

        Hateful Eight nearly crossed the line to me in terms of gratuitous content. The violence startled me at points, which is odd for me, as I’m usually good about that stuff. I’d still watch it again with a different group of people, but still…Tarantino is a messed up dude.

        I haven’t seen Snowpiercer but it’s been recommended to me before. Maybe it’s time I hop on it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Ben. I appreciate you giving Reservoir Dogs a shot.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve always thought of it like this: excellent characterization can save a poorly done plot, but no amount of exciting plot can save bland characters. As many have already stated, it is preferable to have both, but if you can’t do both, your best bet is to have deep, interesting characters.

    Another important misconception I feel a lot of people have is that plot equals action. I have not seen Reservoir Dogs, but based on your description, it does not have a lot, if any, action. But it does appear to have a complex mystery plot. And that is, I believe, the real difference between character driven stories and plot driven stories. Both have interesting characters and plot, but plot driven stories typically have far more action than character driven stories.

    And that’s my two cents.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is a FANTASTIC breakdown, ML! You’re spot on, and I find your points to be eloquently articulated. Thank you for stopping by and contributing your valuable thoughts!

      Like

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