Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Character Driven vs Plot Driven

This month’s movie, Enemy Mine, is not your typical shoot-em-out-of-the-sky Sci-Fi. Although it does have some of that, the story centers around a relationship between a human and an alien. Sworn enemies must rely on each other to survive. Somehow, you know the plot will emerge from their lesson.

A character driven story is one where the “plot emerges from the core of the character.” (From http://mindyhardwick.wordpress.com/2006/08/16/character-driven-vs-plot-driven/) The point of the story could not be made without the conflicts suffered, the lessons learned, and the eventual triumph (or fall) of the characters. In Enemy Mine, the human space-soldier, Willis Davidge, (played by Dennis Quaid,) hates the alien Dracs with all of his being. When the story opens, he is embroiled in a battle similar to those we saw in Top Gun. Earth fighter pilots and alien warriors are bent on destroying each other as the galaxy is being colonized and all is up for grabs. One of the Dracs shoots Davidge’s wingman out of the sky. Now it’s personal. Davidge goes after the Drac despite his crew’s concerns for the ship, ultimately crashing on a God-forsaken planet and killing all on board, including a kid named Joey, just fresh out of basic training.

Sounds like a lot of action so far, right? If the plot revolved around the destruction of the Dracs, how earth forms an alliance to save Davidge from the planet, or anything on a broad scope, (think external) it would be considered plot driven. But, once Davidge pulls himself from the wreckage and realizes the Drac he’d been pursuing has crashed also, and is still alive, we get into the thrust of Davidge’s motivation. He pursued the Drac despite his common sense, causing him to kill all under his command. Fueled by guilt and anger, he is no longer a soldier fighting a worthy cause. He is bent on revenge, and will do all in his power to exterminate the vile beast that, in his mind, caused it all to happen.

The plot emerges from there through the core of Davidge’s character, revenge being the watchword.

Now, you can’t have a relationship story without two parties, (unless that story is Sybil, in which case we have a whole ‘nother lesson to learn about plotting.) Davidge finds the enemy Drac, an ugly reptilian being, looking suspiciously like the creature from the Black Lagoon, camped by his downed spacecraft. Davidge begins to plot its demise. After a series of failed attempts, the Drac, (played by Louis Gossett, Jr.,) captures Davidge. After Davidge is nearly eaten by a sand creature and a horrific meteor shower threatens to pummel them both, they learn they need each other to survive.

The Drac, nicknamed “Jerry” by Davidge who can’t pronounce Jeriba Shigan, soon learns the human language, and we learn that he feels he has as much a right to the galaxy as the earthlings. Clearly, this is not a matter of who is right, but who has the greater power. Both are professional soldiers, on the same level, and now, both marooned.

Jerry becomes an interesting study. We quickly sympathize with him, understanding that his compassion far out ways Davidge’s bent on revenge. He sits for long periods of time in meditation, singing softly, and apparently praying. Now we get to the core of his character. Jerry is a spiritual being. When he quotes from the tiny tome he carries around his neck, it sounds suspiciously like scripture. We get the impression that God is everywhere, and that He has somehow redeemed this one alien soldier. Cool.

Because of Jerry’s gentle nature, Davidge learns the Drac’s language so he can read the words in the small book. It seems Davidge has a need for something greater than himself. They finally become friends in their shared plight.

A character driven plot has sprung from Davidge’s hatred and Jerry’s compassion.

Because Davidge is the main character, we clearly see his arc. He explores the rest of the planet, on his own because Jerry won’t go with him, to see if there is anybody who can help them. He finds a despicable slave colony, with abusive humans using Dracs to mine out the rich minerals. Davidge has gone from hating the Dracs to wanting to protect them.

When he returns to camp, Jerry is sick. Not only is he sick, he is pregnant. It appears that Dracs are both male and female. (Hmm, could this be where Jerry’s compassion springs from? I wonder.) But something is wrong with the baby. After extracting a promise from Davidge that he will teach the child his lineage so he can quote it to the elders on their planet, (a seemingly right of passage,) Jerry dies in a sacrificial act as he instructs Davidge how to take the baby from his body.

Now, Davidge’s protection instinct is stronger than ever. He has a tiny life to care for. The baby Drac quickly grows into a small “boy” named Zammis who calls Davidge “Uncle.” The two form a family bond. When Zammis learns of other Dracs on the planet, he yearns to see one. Even though Davidge is his uncle, they don’t look alike. So, he disobeys his uncle and searches for the slave colony, only wanting to watch from a distance. But he is caught, and Davidge’s worst fear is realized. He had lost Jerry and now he’s about to lose Jerry’s child.

Now, the character driven plot is fueled by obligation, and honor, and love.

Davidge is hurt while trying to rescue Zammis (more Sci-Fi action, because a story based on relationship alone would be called…um…Steel Magnolias.) He wakes in an earth ship and after his wounds are healed, goes back to the planet to save Zammis. All that hatred fueled passion we saw in the beginning of his arc is now directed to the right place. He returns to find Zammis near death. He kills all of the slave traders and saves his best friend’s child.

The final scene shows Willis Davidge, once a soldier fighting against the Dracs, standing in front of their council with Zammis as he quotes his lineage diligently taught to him by his “uncle,” the only family he has living.

So, in my quest to learn the difference between character and plot driven stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you can use the words revenge, hatred, compassion, obligation, honor, love, or anything internal to describe how the plot unfolds, that’s character driven.

Plot driven stories spring from the action. An example might be the recent Tom Cruise offering, War of the Worlds. Obviously Cruise’s character had motivation. If he had a pulse, he had motivation. But the main thrust of the story was to save the earth from destructive aliens. Outward rather internal descriptions prove that this story would be plot driven.

Please be aware that all good stories have some kind of character drive. Consider The Fifth Element with Bruce Willis. Clearly, this is an action-packed, plot-driven story. But there are internal elements, as well. The universe dependent on a rogue cop who cares for no one but himself to save it from destruction. A beautiful alien being learning about violence for the first time. A self-absorbed celebrity thrust into a hero’s roll. A story based on action alone would be called…um…Speed. Or worse yet, Speed 2.

Our group discussion came to the conclusion that in the end, it all comes down to a sliding scale. Some movies clearly are both character and plot driven. Star Wars comes to mind as an equal partnership of the two. Others seem more or less predominant depending on where the scale sits.

So, we’re encouraged to write where our strengths are. If you’re a plot driven writer, go for it. But don’t forget to develop a character or two along the way. If you’re a character driven writer, pass the tissues, but please include some kind of action to keep your reader from yawning half-way through.

If you’re wondering which one you are, take a simple test that can be found at http://www.writersstore.com/article.php?articles_id=691.

Me? I write romance. ‘Nuf said.

1 comment:

D. Gudger said...

Really good summation and illustration drawn from the movie. I thought I was a total plot person until we did that test thingy at Jill's. I have both, but more character driven than I assumed. Probably b/c I read mostly suspense, mystery and thrillers where main character is out to get bad guy.