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.