Character vs. Plot; Satisfying vs. Happy

Which is it?

There’s this belief that more “literate” novels are chock full of character, that plot doesn’t really matter. Indeed, fussy plot details can often get in the way of the magnificently brooding, misanthropic characters.

Well, not exactly.

One of the things taking a stab at my first novel has taught me is that plot and character are inextricably intertwined, often to the point that they’re hard to tell apart.  When I’m writing I often don’t know if the words I’m putting on the page are being dictated by the line of action or the composition of the characters, in other words.

The question is, which one leads and which one follows?

That’s an interesting question in itself.  To try to answer, let’s take a look at two movies.   First, one of my favorite slick action films, Jaws.

I enjoy this movie a good deal.  Sure it’s about as resonant and real as a roller coaster ride, but there are lots of director’s touches that make it work so well.  I often find myself, when watching my DVD version, wondering what Akira Kurosawa, that master Japanese director who found so much gold in not the highest-brow American films (and some of whose own films were adapted into American gold by other directors), thought of Spielberg’s creation.  (I say Spielberg’s creation because so little of the book makes it into the film that they barely touch, really.)

But the action drives the film.  Despite the well-drawn characters (compared to action films that followed, this is Shakespearian), and despite the excellent acting performances by Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and especially Roy Scheider, they are tied to and ruled by chances for the special effects to work their magic.  Time after time I ask why doesn’t Brody, the chief of police and an ex-New York cop (they don’t get the job in the apple because they’re soft and tender) take control of the vessel after it’s pretty clear Quint has popped his springs.  Would a real police officer just stand there after Quint smashes their radio as they’re sinking?

Why is Brody on the boat in the first place?  (I still remember my dad’s response when my mom, watching the movie for the first time on network TV, asked that same question: “Because he’s the star!“)  Since he’s a novice at sea and afraid of the water anyway, he’s the last person you want when you’re trying to hunt a shark.  And it stretches credibility that Quint couldn’t get someone better on an island that’s essentially a fishing community.

And one boat?  Again, it’s a fishing community.  Hooper scolds Brody earlier for not notifying the U.S. Coast Guard about the death of the girl on the beach, but here he’s content to go out on a small sub-standard local vessel without getting any other authorities or even another fishermen (or women, if there were any) on Amity Island involved.  In an action novel, consistency isn’t the primary concern.  Action is, which is why you’ll see Indiana Jones fret that a certain artifact belongs safe and secure in a museum even while he slashes and burns his way through tombs and temples.

There are lots of plot discrepancies in Jaws: Hooper goes night diving to inspect a wrecked boat and finds a severed head of a local fisherman.  The next day everyone seems more worried that Hooper lost a shark’s tooth he’d found instead of the fact that one of their locals who’d been missing for a week had his head bitten off by a shark.  (And shark’s don’t exactly bite people’s heads off anyway, and why was this head deep in the hull of the ship?)

There’s actually somewhat of a good reason for the discrepancy with the fisherman.  Originally Spielberg filmed that scene without the head popping out of the wrecked ship.  When he screened the film at an early premiere, the scene fell flat.

Rather than accept the middle section of the film is kind of draggy, he decided to refilm that bit and add the head popping out, haunted house style.  It’s a great moment–I still remember it was the one time in the film where I really jumped the first time I saw it.  He shot it in the swimming pool of the film’s editor, Verna Fields, in the backyard of her home, buying jugs of milk from a local store and pouring it into the pool to get things all murky.

The trouble is he’d already shot the scenes that follow, where two of the principles talk to the mayor about closing down the beach and never mention the severed head, because it was not yet in the script.  It’d have been impossible to reshoot all of that too, so the continuity discrepancy stood.  Spiels reasoned his audience would be so shaken over the previous scene that they’d hardly notice.  He was largely right.

But other illogical lines in the story are there not because Spielberg was helpless to fix them.  Rather, he didn’t care if the story didn’t pass the sniff test, if shooting into a diver’s compressed air tank would not cause it to explode like an atomic bomb and blow the head off a shark.  (For loudly and vehemently pointing this out, Peter Benchley, author of the book and a certified diver, was tossed off the set.)  Spielberg didn’t worry about reality or continuity; the needs of the action dictated how the characters behaved.  A Brody who wouldn’t use his police instincts to stop Quint when he is clearly mad is able to regain those instincts just at the two hour mark to blow up a shark.  (Spielberg expertly deals with this discrepancy at one moment: Brody is about to take over command and starts ascending the ladder when the shark slams into the keel of the boat and knocks everyone off kilter.  When equilibrium is regained, Brody’s forgotten all about his little mutiny as we’re in the midst of another special effects-driven segment.)

Now take a film that’s all character-driven with little overt “plot”: The Hours.  I confess I haven’t read the book by Michael Cunningham.  But I enjoyed the film, which dealt with a single day in the lives of three sets of people, one group living in 1923, one in 1951 and one in 2001.  The three stories parallel, and furthermore all three follow, to a greater or lesser extent, the plot of the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs. Dalloway.  In fact, the 1923 story is of Woolf writing the novel, only to be interrupted by a visit and a little party with her sister.  The second story, from 1951, deals with another woman reading Mrs. Dalloway for the first time and planning a birthday party for her husband.  The third story, set in contemporary times, is about a woman whose life is so close to Woolf’s heroine that she has acquired the nickname Mrs. Dalloway.  She’s planning a party for her friend and ex-lover, a poet laureate who is dying from AIDS.

There’s hardly much in the way of action.  (And the few attempts at it are a bit clumsy, in my opinion.)  Each woman has a get-together with friends or family.  Each goes through a crisis during the course of the day.  Each nearly has a breakdown of some sort that is narrowly averted.  Each lives in a society that permits varying amounts of social and sexual freedom, and which has varying amounts of understanding about the demons inside one’s mind.  The Hours is not interesting because of plot twists, for there’s really only one, and it is telegraphed with all the subtlety of a PA announcement at a giant stadium.

But it’s character-driven.  The three stories are similar and yet set in vastly different chronological spaces for a reason.  We’re supposed to observe how people from three very different generations and social circles deal with the same problems.  The three are linked over generations—by Virginia Woolf, by lesbianism, by the inability to find happiness in the conventional lifestyles of their time.  How differently do they deal with this?  This is why in The Hours something as trivial as a walk in the garden or the breaking of eggs becomes pregnant with meaning.  Or not, if your imagination lies elsewhere.

I’ve chosen movie examples here largely because I think they’re easy to deal with—they’re generally very concrete, even in character-driven films.  So I’ll close with a third one.  Sometimes—very rarely—a film is driven by both plot and character so equally that it is nearly impossible to separate the two.  My favorite example of this is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.  The characters are richly drawn and rule over the plot.  But the plot is so complex and ever-changing that it also draws the characters.  Who leads and who follows?  I’ve watched the film a dozen times now at least and I couldn’t tell you.  In fact, I feel in this (rare) case it’s a meaningless question. Chinatown is a law unto itself; the normal rules about writing don’t apply when dealing with something that boundary-breaking and unprecedented as this masterpiece of a screenplay by Robert Towne, which many film students consider the greatest of all time.

Someone once made a statement to the effect that the greatest art is created when a creation presses against the boundaries of the possible, not quite breaking them, not quite accepting them.  The resulting friction is A-R-T.  Then Chinatown is definitely A-R-T.

I was also going to discuss the distinction between literary works that leave one happy (Nicholas Sparks) versus satisfied (Chinatown would be an example again, even though the ending is the farthest thing from happy you can imagine).  But this post is already far longer than I’d intended, and the experts in these matters say blog posts should be kept short, because of wandering distractions on the web, so I’ll sign off here and pick up the second theme next time.

One response

  1. I think a “classic” in both book and film has both elements: characters richly drawn and enough plot to keep the action going. Otherwise they cannot be classic. I like the idea of balance and that’s what I go for when I’m writing.

    Great post, John.


    February 15, 2010 at 10:36 am

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