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Saturday, February 15, 2014

How to tell the difference between a plotted and character-driven story

Recently I got a question (which doesn't mean I don't have other questions, lol--just that I'm still trying to play catch-up and it's one hell of a flu season)

I struggle with plot driven vs character driven and what the difference is. Even when creating an outline I cannot tell which one it is. Any examples from popular books would help.

I don't read as many popular books as I should, so I'm going to use popular movies that have a plotted and character-driven version, because it's easier to see. And for that, let's talk about Rambo, one of my favorite series.

The first movie in the series (there are four) is First Blood, loosely based on a David Morrell book of the same name. Loosely based on the David Morrell book of the same name, it’s the psychological study of a Vietnam vet. In the movie, Rambo is a drifter. Everything that happens in First Blood builds on his backstory and who he became because of that backstory. When he heads up into the mountains and does his whole poncho-survivalist thing, it’s understandable because he was Special Forces. It’s something he was trained to do. When he refuses to leave town, it’s because he was a former prisoner of war and he was controlled for a long time, which means he refuses to let anyone control or confine him.
All Rambo's actions are based on who he is (a former Green Beret, ex-prisoner of war), what happened to him (he survived torture and confinement), what he became (a veteran with extreme post-traumatic stress disorder), and what’s happening to him in the story because of his past (because he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese he refused to leave town when told to get out which made him turn around and walk back in, which made the sheriff arrest him, which made the jailor try to give him a haircut and shave him with a straight razor which triggers Rambo’s PSTD which gets the story going).
While the first Rambo movie is character-driven, the later Rambo movies are plot-driven. Although Rambo is still at the center of each movie, he could easily be replaced by pretty much any action hero from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Jason Statham because the scriptwriters forgot the simple incident Morell based Rambo’s reactions on—Rambo was a POW. And because he was a POW, he had PSTD and control issues.
Rambo’s time in the POW camp was the start of his transformational arc. Everything that Rambo does—all his actions and reactions, circle back to Vietnam.

  • When the sheriff tells Rambo to leave town, Rambo refuses to go because he won’t be told what to do ever again.
  •  When the sheriff puts Rambo in jail (behind bars) it triggers Rambo’s post-traumatic stress syndrome.
  •  When Rambo’s jailors get ready to cut his hair, it makes him flashback to prison (his pertinent back story) and being tortured.
  •  Because he was Special Forces in Vietnam, he reacts to that trigger with violence and escapes into the wilderness.
  • When Trautman shows up, there's still a piece of Rambo able to listen because he never cracked in the POW camp, so there's still a piece of him able to respond and pull back.

*A character-driven story is pushed by back story.

*The external plot is silly-simple (they tried to force him to do things that went against his back story and he reacted--violently).


The Descendents--the hero had a indifferent relationship with his wife. Now that she's dying, he's trying to find out who she was, and reconnect with his daughters.

  • If he hadn't drifted away from his wife, she never would have had an affair
  • He never would have felt obligated to find his wife's lover (to allow him to say goodbye)
  • His wife's affair alienates their teenaged daughter because she thinks it's wrong that her mom is betraying her dad, which opens a line of communication between Matt and his daughter, which allows him to heal the rift between them.
Simple line of action: Matt needs to find his wife's lover so he can say goodbye before they pull the plug.

Just like in First Blood, there's a lot going on, but the two movies aren't pointed at anything. Rambo just wants to be left alone. He's not trying to do anything. In the same way the Descendents wasn't really about finding Elizabeth's lover. It's more about the bad choices you make in life, and making good choices.

There is no major goal. They're just stories about people. Sometimes the people are exciting and blow things up, and sometimes they just walk around with their kids.

Let's look at Rambo III. According to the 1990 Guinness book of records, Rambo 3 had the dubious distinction of being the most violent movie ever made with 221 acts of violence, 70 explosions, and over 108 characters killed on-screen. In it Colonel Trautman asks Rambo to help him supply the rebels in Afghanistan (at the time the Soviets were the bad guys). Rambo says no, Trautman goes by himself and is kidnapped, and Rambo takes down the entire Soviet army with minor help from the Afghan rebels in order to get him back. Who can forget that iconic screen shot of Rambo shooting down a Soviet helicopter with an explosive arrow, all that heart-thumping music and Rambo in his tank (and black wife-beater "with" headband!) surviving a direct collision with a helicopter?

Was there any sign of Rambo's PSTD or anti-authoritarian stance? No, because it doesn't matter. "Rambo" doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is getting Trautman back and blowing up as many things as possible. There's a solid goal (get Trautman back, destroy as many Soviets as possible), but the character needs to be flexible (adaptable?) to get the story from pt A (Rambo turning Trautman down because he wants to be left alone) to pt B (blowing up the Soviets and bagging 108 kills. Although to be fair, it's not just about hitting the Guiness Book of World Records, lol).

The story doesn't flow out of character and back story,  it flows "toward" the goal. The story is plotted without taking the character's back story into consideration..

Sometimes stories are a combination of character-driven and plotted because character-driven stories can push a strong plot if the story events and goal also flow out of the character's back story.

In Die Hard, John McClane is estranged from his wife, Holly and goes to the Nakatomi Christmas party (where he hopes they'll get together again). Unfortunately terrorists take over the building, and McClane has to take them down in order to get his wife back. Fortunately, he's got some great back story.

The plot is still simple (get his wife back alive), but it's amped up with lots of explosions, great villains and amazing stunts. You can dress it up or down, but the difference between Die Hard and Rambo III is simply motivation.

By Rambo III are Trautman and Rambo friends? In First Blood, Trautman says he trained Rambo, in Rambo 2 he tells Rambo to go back to Vietnam. By number 3, is Rambo at the point where he'd blow up the Soviet army to get Trautman back? Yeah, right.

In Die Hard, it's hard to ignore the fact that McClane wants Holly back because it's right up front and center. He flew (despite hating planes) cross country, and he's willing to suffer through a posh, snarky Christmas party to be with her. He loves Holly and has motivation with a capital "M".

There's a goal that flows out of his back story (get Holly out of there because he loves her), it supports his motivation, and the story events work for who he is (a really good cop) and showcase his strengths and weaknesses.

so how can you tell what's what?

If your character's motivation to get through the story or do whatever you want him to do flows out of who he is (in back story), then most likely it's character-driven. If you think you're going to need a little less input from the peanut galley to get your character from beginning to end, it's most likely plotted. And I'd suggest either thinning your character out a little so he can fit into the story, or finding a story that fits the character.

Granny Jo

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