It’s about character

Stories are all about characters. Plot is important, but character is king.

Wikipedia says this about Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope: “The plot focuses on the Rebel Alliance, led by Princess Leia (Fisher), and its attempt to destroy the Galactic Empire’s space station, the Death Star. This conflict disrupts the isolated life of ambitious farmhand Luke Skywalker (Hamill) when he inadvertently acquires a pair of droids that possess stolen architectural plans for the Death Star. After the Empire begins a destructive search for the missing droids, Skywalker agrees to accompany Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Guinness) on a mission to return the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance and save the galaxy from the tyranny of the Galactic Empire.”

That’s a pretty good summary of the plot. But that’s not what A New Hope is about. What it’s about is Luke Skywalker maturing from a backwater farm boy into a military hero. It’s about Han Solo learning to have a heart for once in his life. It’s about how Princess Leia allowing herself to rely upon her friends.

A story can have a great plot, but if it doesn’t feature its protagonist maturing or changing in some way, it will never reach its full potential.

Speed Remember the action movie Speed? It had a fantastic plot that instantly hooked everyone: there’s a bomb on a bus and it’s armed once the bus hits 50 miles per hour, then it explodes if the bus goes under 50. So what’s it about? Where is its character? Do you even remember the name of the protagonist played by Keanu Reaves? (I had the poster for that movie on the wall of my bedroom and I don’t.) At the end of that film, it was just another day at the office for… Jack Traven (thanks again, Wikipedia), albeit one in which he lost his partner and got a girlfriend. Speed was a very good movie, but it was all about the plot.

Now contrast it against Die Hard. The plot of Die Hard is simple: an off-duty cop happens to be around when terrorists take over a skyscraper. Alone, he thwarts their plans. But what is it about? It’s about John McClane healing his relationship with his estranged wife. From a pure plot (and action) perspective, Speed and Die Hard are both fantastic films. But Die Hard is an absolute classic because it has character. (I didn’t even mention the story of how Sgt. Al Powell learned to once again trust himself with his firearm in order to protect the innocent.)

The laws of time are mine... and they will obey me! The change in the protagonist can even be a turn for the worse. One of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who is “The Waters of Mars,” in which our hero the Doctor goes crazy and declares himself the “Time Lord Triumphant.” In a rage he screams that the very laws of time belong to him “and they will obey me!” And his arrogance causes a good woman to commit suicide. “The Waters of Mars” is about the Doctor realizing it is very easy for him to go too far. It is an incredible story.

I should also point out that the news media understands this very well. When tragedy strikes, the first news stories focus on the plot: who, what, when, where, and how. But the follow-up stories — the “human interest” stories — focus entirely on the who. Who were the innocent victims of the tragedy? Who were the ragtag rookies and crusty veterans that combined to carry out a classic underdog success story? Who is the senator behind the new bill, and who are the people being harmed by it?

As human beings, we read stories not just to have a good time and to escape, but to connect with someone — even a made-up someone. When a new reader turns to page one of your book, he is extending his hand to your protagonist, introducing himself and inviting himself along on the hero’s journey. Your readers want to make that connection. Don’t disappoint them.

One thought on “It’s about character

  1. Well stated! I’m down for a simple action flick now and then, but the best stories (film or book) are always driven by vivid characters. I’m fascinated by people, and I love connecting with people – including fictional people, as you so well put it at the end of your post. Characters are what make a story meaningful and alive.

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