The ‘character versus plot’ debate in scriptwriting

 

 

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Originally published here at passion for cinema.com

(Warning: spoilers for Dev.D, Race, Swades)

A lot has been said about this. But I thought I should add some points.

Basically the debate is whether development of a story starts from a set of interesting characters or an interesting plot thread. The question may sound absurd or irrelevent. As long as one develops a story, what does it matter whether you start from a character or a plot twist? But it does matter to the final product. And I think that remembering from where you started will help to improve the script.

For example consider Dev.D. From where did it start? Creative process most probably started on imagining Dev and Paro and Chandra as contemporary individuals with the newer sensibilities. Then comes this notion of Devdas as this irritating, self serving, defiant character (As I said earlier in my blog, the creative turning point of the script). Every thing picks up from there, from the characters. And where does that end? Changing the plot of the source material. Because when the characters change, what they bring about to happen also should make sense. Even Devdas drinking just only because of Paro doesn’t make sense any more. Because the new Dev is too self absorbed to do that. He has better reasons to drink. For this generation dying by drinking is not heroic. And wallowing in self pity is not heroic. And understandably the latter half of the story shifts away from paro. Here is an example of characters directly influencing the plot. But I personally feel that the end didn’t do justice to the consistency of his character.

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Race is an example for a story starting from the plot and the whole story getting undermined due to lack of development of the characters. It is very obvious what the intention of the writers were, while writing the script- deliver a twist every 10 minutes. They deliver ‘reversals’ very frequently, completely undoing the previously established situation everytime. In the beginning of the story, you have two brothers who will die for each other. Then one guy turns out to be after the money- he is planning to kill the elder brother. He is full of bitterness since childhood! If he was, he did a good job of hiding it for so many years.

And then there is a girl whom elder brother likes. Elder son sacrifices her in the typical Bollywood fashion for his brother who also likes her. And after 10 minutes, it appears that she is after the money. But again after sometime you realise that she may not be that bad. She has confided in elder brother. Again after 10 minutes or so, she pushes off the elder brother from a roof top. But later we know that…Phew! I am not even going to start about the other female lead who in the beginning seems to be a meek dependable secretary secretly adoring the elder brother.

Here the problem is obvious. None of the characters are believable. When you develop a character in a script, you develop it through presenting some enduring attributes and stable temperament. The character cannot change every 10 minutes. Because the single most important thing in developing protagonists is that audience should be able to develop an cognitive and emotional identification with him/her.

Race has a complicated plot that keeps everyone guessing. But that itself is not enough to hold audience interest. Your characters have to be believable at some basic level. That is the lesson from ‘Race.’ Don’t serve the plot at the cost of your characters.

But there are movies that started off from the plot but still handles the issue of characters in a balanced way. Take ‘A Wednesday’ for example. Basically it is plot oriented. The script depends on the manipulation of events. The sudden twists and turns. But it does not come at the cost of underdeveloping or distorting the characters. The ‘aam aadmi’ and the efficient police officers are well developed and presented without harming the pace of the story. There are no major inconsistencies except may be the speech by Naseeruddhin Shah at the end. The question is, whether such an cold, efficient ‘action speaks louder than words’ person would take great pains to explain what he is doing, to the police (of all people). If he tried to explain it to the terrorists or the mass media it would have made more sense. During that speech, he appears like a narcissist who is too self indulgent. But anyway the appropriateness of that speech is debatable.

Lagaan and Chakde India are two other examples where writing starts from a piece of interesting plot and then successfully comes full circle in developing the characters.

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What happens when you have some interesting characters with identifiable dilemmas but at the stage of fixing them in a plot, you are dead midway? I think that is what happened with Swades. Everything goes well in the first 1 hour. You have established many interesting characters. You have established the basic issue. But by that time audience know how this movie is going to end. Shahrukh is going to stay. Now the reason we still sit through movies even after guessing the end is to see how the end is going to be executed. The problem with the script is that there is not enough power in the events by which the last one hour is effected. By power I don’t mean that it should have been better if Shahrukh Khan saved the village from some Gabbar Singh in the end. Actually its great that the writer resisted the temptation to do something like that. But the stream of events fail to impart a cathartic peak in the end. And that is a failure in the plot development. An interesting theme and an interesting story are entirely different things.

The same problem of interesting characters failing to translate into an interesting plot is seen in many later Ram Gopal Varma movies. Consider ‘Road.’ The couple on wheels. The psycho stranger. The character conflicts. Everything is interesting. But this much character material is not worth more than 1 hour. What happens next? All combinations of possibilities are to be tried. The psycho running off with the girl. The girl running off from the psycho. The boy running after the psycho. The psycho running after both of them. But as Hemingway said, motion is not action. At least one or two reversals could have been tried in the second half.

Same problem recurs in RGV’s later don movies. The elderly patriarch of a don and a reluctant son are definitely interesting. Lets assume that they are original. But in the back drop of the underworld, how many times can you get away in the name of plot with bumping offs, betrayals and mask like faces giving and receiving death threats?

Overall it appears that what is important is not whether you start from character or plot, but whether you give due importance to the other part during the development process. From that paradigm, to be conscious regarding how you started developing your story can be helpful. It may help one to make sure the other elements are not neglected. So the debate should not be for precedence of character or plot but for their balance.

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3 thoughts on “The ‘character versus plot’ debate in scriptwriting

  1. Yes sure it’s a never ending debate. I personally thought that Swades was better than Lagaan in terms of how the ending will come about. Of course in both the films we knew the outcome, but I thought that in Swades the character of Mohan Bhargav was better developed and that kept me interested till the end. In Lagaan, the character of Bhuvan, with all due respect to the film and the writer, was cliched. I anticipated exactly how the film will turn out after the match was fixed.
    Again in Chak de, the characters of SRK and Shilpa shukla kept me interested till the end even though the ending was imminent. I cannot talk about other films you mentioned as I havent seen them. On a different note, it’s interesting how sometimes certain film directors make great films just on the basis of character development with almost no plot. Perfect examples of that; Scorsese’s Taxi driver and most Jim Jarmusch’s films.

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