Characters are Not Enough

Many stories are carried along by the strength of their protagonist, or the combined strength of their protagonists and supporting cast. Forrest Gump is a great example of this. Forrest’s good natured innocence and straight forward attitude make him endearing and his devotion to Bubba, Lieutenant Dan and, of course, Jenny prove the strength of his moral fiber. Forrest is a great character and his story is a simple and straight forward one, to the point where the character seems to be the only part that matters.

Walking away from a story focusing only on the part that brought the largest emotional reaction is a mistake. But when it comes to characters many people seem to make that mistake.

Discussions about modern media are rife with talk of characters and how the decisions and growth of those characters drive stories forwards. That’s good, those kinds of discussions are vital to the understanding of stories and how they speak to us. Characters are what we relate to in stories and the agents of that bring about all the events and circumstances that provoke reactions from the audience.  We absolutely need to have solid understandings of those character in order to properly appreciate stories and especially to create engaging and satisfying stories of our own.

But characters don’t make a story.

Stories have a plot for a reason. That reason is, in short, to drive events. See, your characters should take actions consistent with their background, their personality and their circumstances but at the same time you cannot expound on these facets of every person in your story. Sometimes they just aren’t going to be around long enough to make it worth the time, sometimes you just need to keep moving to hold the audience’s interest and sometimes there are just forces at work that are too big to fully explore. Forrest Gump gives us many examples of all three but Forrest’s time in Vietnam wraps all three into one convenient package.

Forrest winds up drafted to fight in Vietnam, like many people of his era. Most of the characters in his unit turn out to be fairly unimportant to the plot, and they’re just glossed over. Even his Drill Sergeant, a fairly important character in most military stories, is really just background noise in this tale. In fact much of his military service is just glossed over. The story could expound on all of them but that would drag the narrative away from its purpose, which is to show how Forrest’s military service built bonds between himself, Bubba and Lt. Dan, three very different characters who would never have met or bonded under any other circumstances. Expanding on all the other characters involved in the drama of Vietnam would have detracted from that.

Now, this may seem confusing as I just focused on a character based outcome while emphasizing the importance of plot, but this is simply because characters cannot thrive without plot. It doesn’t mean characters are unimportant. The ideal plot is simply the series of events that allow you to say what you wish about your characters in the most impactful way possible.

Vietnam presents the events that create the connection between Forrest and Lt. Dan, and break the bond between Forrest and Bubba. A weaker version of the story could have gotten sidetracked by the dynamic of Forrest and his Drill Sergeant or other members of his unit but that would have stretched out how long the narrative took to return to one of its most central points – the relationship between Forrest and Jenny. By sticking to its plot and focusing only on the events that are necessary for us to understand Forrest by the time they reunite the movie comes out much stronger.

Ultimately discussions of whether character or plot are most important to a story seem foolish to me. The point is to allow both to collaborate to produce the best result possible. But if you focus exclusively on characters while formulating your story then you are bound to miss out on the best way to present them to your audience and if you focus entirely on analyzing characters and ignore the events you will miss how to best blend them.

Surprise is Not Enough

When it comes to media, our culture is obsessed with surprise.

I get it. The moment when Darth Vader announced he was Luke Skywalker’s father was a watershed moment in cinema for an entire generation. Very few people saw it coming. The surprise was part of what made it stick in the mind so strongly. But it’s not like “I am your father” is a weak moment on repeated viewing. Even if The Empire Strikes Back is my least favorite of the three original Star Wars movies, I recognize that it’s a very strong film start to back and works well even on repeated viewings. There’s nothing wrong with the twist at the end, I just don’t think it had to be a surprise to have its impact.

But our culture hates knowing things ahead of time. “No spoilers” wasn’t even a meaningful phrase when I was younger but now most eight year olds could tell you what it means and provide examples of things they don’t want spoiled. Perhaps most interesting, a great deal of psychological research suggest that surprise isn’t even that important to a person’s enjoyment of a story. Spoilers change a person’s enjoyment very little to none at all in surveys done on the topic.

Some of our fixation on surprise undoubtedly comes from the rise of social media and the exponential explosion in the ways we can encounter spoilers. Some of it is probably rooted in the desire to be first to do a thing, or at least feel like you’re the first. The new and novel is a necessary part of the human experience and today, when so much of our world is mapped, settled and tamed by the hand of humanity media is one of our primary was to find new things. New people, places we’ve never been and ideas we’ve never considered. So surprise in story is a valuable thing, to be sure.

But surprise alone is not enough.

There’s a movement among media critics to simply praise anything that is surprising, especially if that surprise comes through subversion of expectations. In our increasingly media savvy world, achieving surprise in stories is harder and harder. To combat this, some creators chose to deliberately play in to tropes for a time, then suddenly replace the expected conclusion of those tropes with something different – they subvert expectations. The Darth Vader scene I cited at the beginning is a good example of this.

Vader was presented as an irredeemable villain for the entirety of the first Star Wars film and most of The Empire Strikes Back. But the revelation that Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father cast him – and everything we had learned about Luke’s father – in a new light, and forced us to reevaluate what we thought about the story so far. Our expectations for the climax of the story and what would happen afterwards were completely avoided and new outcomes were now possible. That’s the subversion of expectations.

What’s important to note about this particular subversion is that it worked so effectively because it didn’t directly contradict most of what we knew – the only real point of contradiction was Obi-Wan’s statement in the first film that Vader killed Luke’s father, an understandable lie to tell the son of the Galaxy’s most brutal villain. Add in the way it fit with Vader’s behavior in the rest of The Empire Strikes Back and the revelation made a horrifying kind of sense.

The problem is, subversion for the sake of subversion rarely takes the time to set up this important ground work. Take another moment in the Star Wars franchise, in The Last Jedi when Luke Skywalker takes his father’s old lightsaber from Rey and tosses it over one shoulder in an act of casual disregard that in no way matches the attitude of Luke or any other Jedi towards lightsabers at any other point in the franchise. This is a visually funny moment and we’re not expecting it, in fact I laughed on first viewing. But the dissonance this creates is off-putting and the moment probably doesn’t hold up to repeated viewing (I’ve only watched the film once) as its entire value is in surprise. We can’t appreciate it for what it says about the characters or their parts in the saga because it doesn’t fit with anything we know about those characters up to that point or, really, that we learn about them afterwards.

Audiences love novelty but, at the same time, you can’t take away what they’ve come to know just for the sake of novelty or your story runs the very real risk of losing its audience. Media cannot be strictly formulaic but one way the craft of storytelling is much like mathematics is that both require one to show your work. Subversion is fine, but without careful thought and patient crafting to make that subversion consistent with everything else you’ll get a failing grade. Don’t just go for surprise – make sure your characters and plot hold up when the novelty is gone and you’re well on your way to a classic.

Themes are Not Enough

A recent trend I’ve noticed in media criticism is to appeal to the thematic core of a work rather than the quality of the work. There’s value in examining themes, of course, looking at them gives us a baseline for analyzing techniques, progression and results. But just presenting themes is not in and of itself a merit of a story. Let’s step back and look at an example.

Jordan Peele’s Us is a horror film. It has themes of examining consumerism and corporate attempts to control American life through advertising. It executes on these themes (so I am told) in clunky, odd and poorly explained ways. Now, I’m not a fan of Jordan Peele, horror or Us. In fact, I’ve never seen the movie and I don’t have a particular dog in any fight about the quality of the film or the execution of its premise. I’ve chosen it particularly because I am about as neutral as it is possible to be regarding the story and its themes, and because it is a good example of the phenomenon I’ve noted before.

Discussions about Us all seem to revolve around, on the one hand, the nonsensical nature of the events it portrays (but come on, guys, it’s a horror film, none of them make sense) and on the other hand the weight of its thematic core. Most critics who are down on the film want the thoughts of the characters to make sense, or the mechanics of the world to be straight forward and sensible. Again, this second element mystifies me since it’s a horror movie and things that make sense kind of undercut the horror part but I can definitely agree with characters having sensible, consistent thoughts. So when a critic presents a series of moments in the film that show characters contradicting themselves for no reason, or the behaviors of the characters duplicates defying the limits and boundaries that supposedly define them, I understand where they’re coming from.

On the other hand, when people appeal to the strength of the themes in Us they tend to simply present the theme as relevant to the culture we live in. Again, I understand this. Us is poking at social stratification and consumerism, problems that exist in our culture . However, defenders of the film rarely do more than point out the elements that play up these themes. In particular, they never point out how playing to those themes necessitates, or at least excuses, the flaws in characterization or consistency that critics constantly harp on. They seem to think that the thematic levels Us works on justifies its failures in execution.

This is wrong.

Understanding and appreciating a work’s themes is fine. Conveying those themes is one of the responsibilities of the creator. But it’s far from the only responsibility. In fact, it’s the barest beginning of competent art. The artist also has a responsibility to clear away any and all obstacles that might obscure the message of their work, and that means creating character consistency, clear cause and effect in the narrative and making sure all other elements of good storytelling are in place. You cannot simply set good themes down as a foundation then throw your plot up in the air and hope it all lands fine. That is sloppy and lazy storytelling.

Let me take a small example from a story I have watched, where a thematic element was actually undermined by its execution. In The Dragon Prince Amaya is the general of the Katolian forces and she’s deaf. Thematically her story is about overcoming obstacles, both those presented by her disability and those that stem from her grief at the loss of her family. That’s a solid theme.

The problem I have is that Amaya is deaf. Being deaf creates all kinds of problems for a person in a leadership position, especially one that has such dire, real time constraints getting information across as military leadership. Amaya needs to be looking at her people to communicate with them, something as simple as a heavy fog can make it impossible for her to pass her orders to anyone who isn’t right next to her. And she lives in a world with magic where fog can appear on command. Add in the very important role of sound in providing situational awareness and making responses to danger possible – very important to the average soldier or general alike – and Amaya is badly in need of some kind of seriously unusual justification for her position. Yet she’s never shown with any more resources on hand to overcome her disability than the average deaf person on Earth.

It’s jarring and, frankly, more than a little pandering. And it feels more like Amaya has her position because she’s the Queen’s sister (or the writers wanted it that way) rather than a competent general. It’s bad storytelling stemming from a failure to think through the characters limits and it undercuts the thematic component of Amaya’s character.

Storytelling is hard, and in part it requires a storyteller to blend clear, mathematical cause and effect events with a strong emotional sense in ways that most people cannot quite achieve. Themes are an important part of that emotional sense but when decoupled from the clear cause and effect themes quickly begin to falter. If you’re dealing with both author and critic who are acting in good faith, pointing out when cause and effect lapses isn’t intended to ignore the strength of those themes, but rather to bolster them. When you stop using themes as a shield against criticism and instead look at themes through the lens of criticism you may even find they come in to sharper focus. Don’t be afraid to put the ideas at the heart of your story under that lens.

Certainty is the Enemy of Story

“What would happen?”

It’s one of the first questions humans learn to ask in their lives. What would happen if I put these pink stubby things in my mouth? What would happen if I put the thing on the floor in my mouth? What would happen if I rolled off the crib? What would happen if I sneak up on my older sister and suddenly scream right behind her?

And, once she got good and mad at me and chased me across the house, I found myself asking the second question humans learn. Why?

Stories are an attempt to answer these two questions in ways that others understand and enjoy. One of the most important parts of accomplishing this is making sure the audience is interested in the answers to the questions we’re asking. Of course the questions we’re asking are rarely what they appear to be on the surface of the story and that’s a very important part of storytelling but not the part I want to look at today. Rather I want to talk about the way certainty undermines this aspect of storytelling.

Suspense is often overrated as an important part of storytelling. A thriller like Rear Window would lose much of its impact on repeated viewings if suspense were vital to its impact. Instead, the film is just as good, maybe even better on repeated viewings. At the same time, you can’t let certainty creep into your storytelling, at least as regards your core conflict. Let me give some examples.

Captain Jean Luc Picard is a very principled character. He has standards for himself, for the crew of his ship, for his allies, for what constitutes good behavior and so forth. He’s very certain of those principles. However, onboard a starship far from friendly faces and often in the depths of space away from any refuge at all, surrounded by undocumented phenomena and unfamiliar lifeforms and cultures, how Picard can best live up to those standards is always in doubt. Often people who the Captain trusts a great deal will give him conflicting advice about how to best uphold his principles, or will fall short of them and put his principles in conflict with his human compassion and force him to find a resolution to that conflict. These are just a handful of the uncertainties Picard and the crew of the starship Enterprise face on their adventures.

In contrast, Indiana Jones doesn’t really have to struggle to balance his principles or figure out how they apply to his circumstances. Indy knows Nazis are bad, and putting artifacts in a museum is good. What he’s never sure he can do is find the artifact, get past the deathtraps defending it and do it all without the Nazis catching him and sending him off to the Big Sleep. The uncertainty is in whether he can do what he needs to do in order to reach his goals.

Finally, Sam Spade is a hardboiled detective, he’s got fast hands and a faster mind and he is going to find the Maltese Falcon and the person who murdered his partner. What’s less certain is what he’s going to do when he finds them. Murder his partner’s killer in cold blooded revenge? Keep the Falcon for himself, give it to his client or turn it over to one of the other interested parties for more money and an easier life? When he finds out the person who killed his partner is the girl he’s sweet on, will her turn her in? These uncertainties about Spade’s moral character keep each confrontation Spade finds himself in interesting.

Take a look at a story and you’ll find the conflict hinges on the things the audience is uncertain about. It’s very hard to have conflict centered on things you are certain of. Picard is never going to turn away from the Federation and become a space pirate. In the one story where he turned up as a space pirate even eight year old me knew it was some kind of ruse (I didn’t use that word though). That story hinged on Picard’s love of history and peacemaking nature serving as the key to stopping an insurrectionist plot on the planet Vulcan, and the lengths he had to go to in order to maintain the ruse while still serving his principles. There’s just no conflict in stretching out whether Picard is a pirate or not – no one in the audience will believe that for a minute and we’d think the characters were dumb if they bought in to it as well. This is also a big part of why stories where superheroes “quit” then come back often feel flat – we know they’re coming back to the job at some point because that’s the heart of the story. There’s no uncertainty about what will happen and we’re just anxious to get it over with.

Allowing these elements that are almost forgone conclusions to seep into your story hurt it. A lot. Sometimes you can think of a clever dodge – look at Spiderman 2 for example, where Peter’s temporary retirement was driven by a loss of his power about which we were (naturally) uncertain of the cause and cure. But for the most part, focusing on the parts of your character that are givens, certainties that you have no intention of changing, is not the core of a good story. You have to put the emphasis on the uncertainties that will challenge your characters and keep the audience invested.