Anyone reading the trades would get the impression that “a movie” is synonymous with “a plot”. Anyone reading a screenwriting book would think that a “a movie” really just means “a character.” So which is it? Well, you can’t have one without the other, of course, but that leaves us with a huge conundrum: which comes first? Do you create an interesting character and then craft a situation around them, or do you create an interesting situation and then figure out who might be dealing with it.
The short answer: I just don’t know. This is a question I agonize about. Either way is dangerous. If you start with a character, even if they’re fascinating—especially if they’re fascinating— then they’re going to be resistant to change and unwilling to put themselves in danger. Beware of the “character piece”, where we watch someone drift from scene to scene, encountering characters who define them, but don’t challenge them.
Up in the Air is a good example of a movie that was defined by the character, not the plot. It was about a rootless efficiency expert who is only happy when he’s on an airplane. That’s an interesting character. But the challenges he runs into (having to compete with a young colleague, falling for a married woman) never seriously challenge that core characterization. The movie is more about defining the character than re-defining him, and that’s a problem. Clooney’s character is an unstoppable force (of rootlessness) that never meets an immovable object, so the movie never kicks into gear.
In movies, as in life, what we feel and believe is ephemeral. We see ourselves one way, the world sees us another way, and who’s to say who is right—until the rubber meets the road. We don’t know who we really are until we hit an obstacle. Trying to define yourself, or your characters, outside of a major challenge is a slippery business.So let’s start with a plot instead. This is more common. Situation: an alien invasion. Great. But who deals with it? Who’s the character? What is the character’s relationship to the plot? If you spend a lot of time coming up with a cool situation before you pair it to one character’s journey, then you could end up in big trouble all over again.
H. G. Wells’s novella “War of the Worlds” is about a hell of an interesting situation, and it’s lived on as a successful radio drama, a pretty-good 1957 movie and a so-so 2005 movie. Each version coasted on the value of the very-cool concept: Martians shoot pellets at the Earth, from which vehicles emerge that shoot death rays, but they are defeated by their lack of immunity to earth viruses. But there was one thing that all of these versions lacked: memorable characters.
In the 2005 version, Tom Cruise was an aimless divorced dad trying to redeem himself and protect his kids. Okay, but what does that have to do with aliens getting defeated by a virus? Nothing. The character arc and the plot never intersect. War of the Worlds is a plot that doesn’t have room for any characters.Great movies have characters and plots that can’t live without each other. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice isn’t interesting enough for us to just follow her around at FBI camp, generating her own conflict and getting to know herself. If the opportunity to interview Lecter hadn’t come along, there would have been no movie. By the same token, there would have been no movie if another, less conflicted agent had been sent to interview Hannibal Lecter. He only agrees to help solve the case because he finds Clarice so compelling. This plot was necessary to re-define this character and this character was necessary to instigate this plot.
So… the big question… if you wanted to write the new Silence of the Lambs, would you start with the plot or the character?? I invite comments…