In any narrative be it movies, video games, or writing, there is often this question of, “is it plot driven, or character driven?” You can ask this regarding any story and find that the narrative tilts one way or the other. In this blog, I’m going to explore some of the tensions that can arise, and I’m going to use Mark Hamill’s plight in the newer Star Wars films as my primary example.
Don’t worry if you’re not really into Star Wars, I am not either. I barely remember them the old ones I watched as a young kid, and haven’t seen any of the new ones. The example with Mark Hamill is strong enough that all that becomes secondary. But we’ll get to all that. First, character vs plot.
A sitcom will usually be character driven. Think of Friends for example. People don’t really tune in to that for the storyline, they did it for the company of the characters. There are things that are more plot driven. I’ll give an example of something I honestly haven’t read; George Orwell’s 1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four). It’s fairly common knowledge that 1984 is a book about a dystopian future where thought is controlled and “Big Brother is watching you.”
Here’s the key point, many people know the premise of 1984, but how many know the main character’s name? I, to be perfectly honest, haven’t a clue. I don’t even know what their role is. But that’s okay for this narrative, I think. It’s so huge that terms like “Orwellian nightmare,” or “thoughtcrime,” and “Big Brother” have still entered everyday speech.
I’ve known about this distinction for a very long time, and I’ve always personally believed that character driven stories have a slight edge over anything else. Plot driven has it’s place, it’s great for exploring specific ideas or topics, but I think that ultimately it can come at the expense of characters. My 1984 example illustrates this, so much has leaked into pop culture, but who knows the main character? And does he even really matter? He isn’t like, say, Harry Potter, where everyone recognizes the name even if they don’t recognize the title “Goblet of Fire.” I wonder if Harry Potter is more plot driven or character driven? I think the characters came first…
But back to the discussion at hand. I had always figured character driven narratives had an advantage. Things play out more naturally. You never see the hand of the author forcing situations at the expense of characters or their motivations, because ideally the character is in control. And even better, you can get the best of both worlds with character driven stories.
You can explore the same topics and issues as in plot driven narratives by embodying that issue or concern for that issue into the main character. You have some sort of injustice? Make your main character’s goal be to fight that injustice. This allows the idea to be portrayed more naturally, rather than creating a storyline or world that revolves around or forces an issue or topic.
Even so, there is still a tension. Sometimes the plot does require something here or there to make it work and propel the story. Maybe I’ll return to this topic later with some proper examples. For now, let’s move on to Star Wars.
I was up late last night watching YouTube, and I ended up on an interesting compilation titled, “All 50+ times Mark Hamill tried to subtly warn us about last jedi/force awakens and Disney.” It’s a series of clips, mostly from interviews, where Hamill wrestles with his role in the then-upcoming film, The Last Jedi. There is some pressure on him for three reasons. (Note: All timestamps are in reference to this video.)
- The film wasn’t out yet at that time, so in the clips he can’t reveal anything. Hamill cleverly sticks to drawing allusions from the couple lines of dialogue that were in the trailers.
- He can’t really say anything negative about the film or the directors. He’s touring to promote the movie, and he’d likely get in a bit of trouble if he said anything negative. It’s all contracts, Hollywood, and maybe a bit of reputation.
- Hamill is really disappointed about Luke’s role in the film. This is the big one. Hamill, and likely everyone who saw the film, saw that in this film, Luke was different. It seems he was always hopeful and optimistic, but now? He’s given up. Here’s where the tension is, Hamill can’t really say anything about it. He’s held back for the previous two reasons. Let’s dive in.
As I said, I don’t watch Star Wars. I can barely remember the movies I have watched. I know most of the plot from the old Lego Star Wars games. But when I watched this series of interviews, I really felt like I had watched an actor whose character had been lost at the expense of story, and my mind turned to writing. Plot vs character.
Here we have someone advocating for the character, in a situation at odds with the plot. Almost like the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees,” Mark Hamill “speaks for the character” of Luke Skywalker.
Even though I hadn’t seen the film, watching Hamill talk about the changes that happened to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars IX made me a little emotional. It seems that Luke had inexplicably changed from optimistic to to a reclusive hermit, given up on the world, given up on everything he had held dear in the original films; the Jedi and the Force.
There’s a section that really hit me, at 7 minutes in, where Mark Hamill says:
“I said to Rian, I said, ‘Jedi’s don’t give up! I mean, even if he had a problem, he would maybe take a year to try and regroup, but if made a mistake he would try and right that wrong.’ So right there we had a fundamental difference, but it’s someone else’s story, and Rian needed me to be a certain way to make the ending effective.”7:02-7:25 (section continues)
The change was so that everything would (they said) “work” in the bigger plot, and a scene at the end. Force a change in character to serve the plot. Maybe it’s justifiable, but it’s also pretty harsh.
“for Luke to say that ‘the Jedi must end?’ What happened to this guy? He was the most hopeful optimistic character, and now he’s some elderly recluse.”11:47-11:57 (section starts at 11:32)
We can see Hamill in other clips saying, “a Jedi would never give up,” and how Luke really represented hope—wasn’t the first Star Wars film called A New Hope, in reference to him? Hamill says (trying to keep things polite) that the script, “surprised him.” All I could think was, this is a man betrayed. Hamill seemed really and hurt about the fate of his character, and that the directors didn’t pay attention to his ideas for possible changes.
This brings us back to the original point, plot vs character. Through Hamill’s experience, we get a unique glimpse at the perspective of a character through the actor. We see the dangers of subserving a character to the plot. It writing, we never get this sort of glimpse into a character, and I think it’s an interesting point of meditation.
If you write, it might make you think of your own writing. I think, do I ever do this? How would that make the character feel? Would the reader feel betrayed the way the character, or even a hypothetical actor might? How can I fix or avoid it?
P.S. I am moving the release date from Monday back to Sunday starting next week. I may move it again, looking for something that works with my schedule.
Being, on occasion, last-minute person, being up late Sunday night writing isn’t really a good fit. Being up late Saturday (and hopefully later finding time earlier within the week) is much better!