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Plot => Character (Rituals => Tribe)

Character or plot. Which comes first?

Some say character prevails, others say it’s a chicken and egg thing. But … how do you define a character?

In film, you can only reveal what a character is about by showing its actions.

Dialogue doesn’t work, because it sounds false, ‘on the nose’. As a matter of fact: characters often say exactly the opposite of what they mean until the Ordeal / Plot Point 2.

The character camp may say: you need to know the character before you can give it reactions to plot.

Well, do you?

Or is this plotting exactly how you find out about your character? I believe the latter.
To get to know your character, you imagine events and situations, then you imagine how the character will respond. You don’t know your character until you have gone through this process. It is the response to a number of meaningful situations that will fully define the true character.

So, first you need to design the situations and responses.

And if you want to create character transformation, the nature of those responses changes over the course of the movie. Moreover: those changes have to be laid out in a particular way over the course of the story, or the audience won’t get it.

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Breaking news: you have just created PLOT. Story structure.

Because the audience is conditioned by all the movies they’ve seen before, this story design cannot be random. The audience has an expectation, based on the structure of movies from their viewing history.

Only a very small share of the audience is willing to enjoy challenging structures.

Even this small audience keeps shrinking. Less and less producers, financiers, distributors and exhibitors are willing to take the risk.
To ignore this fact is not a good career decision under the current climate. To tell people they can ignore this fact is really sabotaging their careers.

To summarise:

Character is defined by actions. Actions are shown in a structured way: plot.

Therefore, you need plot in order to express character.  Q.E.D.

If you don’t understand the structural principles that govern in the creation of the plot, your film will fail. Always? No. Only in 99.9% of the cases.
So feel free to ignore the structural principles.

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In the same way, how do you define a tribe?

A tribe is defined by its rituals.  They are the collection of structured actions the tribe performs. Structured, because they happen in the same order under the same circumstances.

Stray from the exact order in which the rituals are performed and the tribe will be confused.

A movie is a ritual with an inherent structure.
The audience expects you to respect this.

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 3

  1. Quite frankly I am sick to death of the plot vs character argument. Like the plots of so many films that have no heart, it leaves me cold. Do I know or care as an emerging writer/film maker whether it is the egg or the chicken? No. Am I passionate about telling stories via film, yes.

    I think all an audience ‘expects’ is to be entertained or moved in some way. A critic on the other hand might ‘expect’ a certain structure to be adhered to but not an audience. Anybody can follow the ‘hero’s’ journey and still fail to make a great film. Anybody can get in touch with their ‘tribe’ and fail to touch anyone but their mother. Anyone can write a story, imagine character’s actions and situations and still fail to tell a good story or get the script read.

    Film making can be an organic experience for all involved, I am tired of the creative process being crammed into the ‘correct structure’ to be deemed great.

    I am trying to learn film making and writing. This argument only confuses me and makes it more difficult to achieve success. It intellectualizes a craft which inherently and simply requires hard work, imagination, heart and soul and experience yet at the same time turns our creative attempts into film making dogma. I will endeavor to continue my learning but it is frustrating to feel as though, as a student, I am caught in a war of the roses about what the correct way to write a screenplay or tell a story is. And, I, as an audience member feel insulted by the opinion that I just want to see more of the same because that is all I am capable of understanding as a creature of someone else’s habit!

    Arguments, opinions, and beliefs about what is right is great guys but I think I am going to develop my own ideas from here on out and leave the ‘correct’ way of doing things to the religious right and the police.

    I have been studying both plot-driven and character-driven theories. Both ways have their positives and negatives, and from where I am sitting right now they have one thing in common: driven by egos and traditions that smother creativity. Not interested.

  2. Post
    Author

    “A critic on the other hand might ‘expect’ a certain structure to be adhered to but not an audience.”

    I would say: it’s exactly the other way around.

    More comments, please!

  3. OK Aarhon, way to go. I have to endorse nearly all of that. Just don’t let it make you an iconoclast ‘to prove a point’ or you will fall into the same trap.. of ‘anti-theory’, so to speak. And I hate anti-conventionalist ‘theories’ about as much as I do ‘conventionist’!

    But, the lesson you so eloquently and passionately put is that ‘analysis is always after the event; it can never ensure a good result or prevent a bad one’. That’s true I think. The only caveat is that you can still ‘learn’ from what others do, which may require working out ‘just what it is they actually DID’. Rock an’ a hard place my friend. haha. Good luck.

    As to ‘convention’, I think it’s not so much a matter of conforming TO it, as working OFF it, and that requires at least a sensitivity to how far you are pushing. Make any sense? Once again, nice site. Mike : >

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