1. Laurus

    Laurus Disappointed Idealist Contributor

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    Simple plots, complex characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Laurus, Jun 26, 2017.

    I saw an image on Pinterest a while ago that I've not been able to discuss with anyone yet and it's been bumming me out. Then I remembered I could discuss such things here!

    [​IMG]
    I haven't been able to get this out of my head and I was hoping to hear other's thoughts on it. It makes sense -- if you exposed different groups of characters to the impetus of a plot you've designed, they'd react so differently that you'd end up with different stories and divergent plots that all started with the same event. It's like the chaos theory of writing.

    But is it really this simple? In my experience, this largely holds true, but I can't imagine it's this black and white across the board. Where do plot twists fit in here? Does "complex" mean layered or unpredictable? A mix of both? Just how predictable can a character be before that character becomes boring, even if he/she is a character with many layers? How much does plot really matter beyond the protagonist simply wanting something?
     
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  2. OJB

    OJB A Mean Old Man Contributor

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    Hello Laurus,

    James Scott Bell is a structural theorist whose works have influenced me greatly. And yes it is that simple.

    Let's take Lord of the Rings; despite the story being complex in plot and structure, the main idea behind it is very simple: Frodo, a hobbit, sets out to destroy the One Ring. The Twist is this though, Frodo fails. He is not the one to destroy the ring. It is Gollum, an antagonist, that ends up destroying the One Ring. Reading Lord of the Rings the first time, this Event was so simple yet shocking at the same time. Never in 100 years would I have guessed this, but it was foreshadowed since the Mines of Moria 30+ chapters Earlier whem Gandalf says Gollum will have a role to play in destroying the ring.

    I hope my example helps you understand your question.

    -OJB.
     
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  3. Laurus

    Laurus Disappointed Idealist Contributor

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    Interesting. That does help, thank you! It makes me think I've been focusing my energy in the wrong areas. Is there anything you can recommend by JSB for someone with only basic structural knowledge?
     
  4. OJB

    OJB A Mean Old Man Contributor

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    Plot and Structure by JBS. It's is a great introduction to Story Structure for a novice writer.

    His L.O.C.K method is the basis in which I judge if a premise of a story is strong enough or not.

    -OJB
     
  5. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I wouldn't say the characterization in Lord of the Rings is all that complex, though. So it can be used as an example of how to boil a plot down into a simple summary, but I don't think it meets the other half of the original quote.

    What are some other successful books we could look at? How are we defining "successful"?

    Well, the quote is about movies as well, and their success is often based on money, so let's look at the list of inflation-adjusted top grossers at http://www.businessinsider.com/the-highest-grossing-movies-of-all-time-adjusted-for-inflation-2016-9/#9-the-exorcist-1973-2...

    Snow White. Let's pass on this one.

    The Exorcist - long time since I've seen it. Obviously pretty easy to boil the plot down, but I'm not sure it fits the complex characters part of the quote.

    Doctor Zhivago - I haven't seen it. Anyone?

    Jaws - easy to boil down the plot, but again, I don't think the characters are all that complex.

    The Ten Commandments - I haven't seen it...

    Titanic - again, neither the plot nor the characters seem all that complex.

    ET - another simple plus simple, I'd say.

    Sound of Music - simple plus simple?

    Star Wars - simple plus simple.

    Gone With the Wind - hmmm. The plot can be boiled down, but there's certainly a lot of detail thrown in. Characters? I wouldn't say they're all that complex, but the lack of sympathetic characters is interesting...


    Overall, I don't think the statement holds, not based on my interpretation of "successful" and "simple plots" and "complex characters".
     
  6. OJB

    OJB A Mean Old Man Contributor

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    The Great Gatsby.

    Very complex characters.

    Plot: Rich guy wants to steal other rich guy's wife.

    My issue with the Great Gatsby is that characters are so complex, and the subtext so subtle, it's not a book I'd suggest to someone new to writing to study, but if he or she wants to jump into the deep end of the pool that would be the book I'd suggest.

    -
     
  7. Sixthperson

    Sixthperson Member

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    To an extent, I believe it's true. Good characters make the story. With good characters, the plot doesn't need to be complex. Also, the characters can lead the plot into complex waters. However, if it's in reverse, where the plot is complex and the characters are simple, the characters might ruin the idea of the plot by being boring. So the complexity of the plot isn't necessarily important, but the characters are. They don't have to be complex, but they do have to be interesting, which often means complex.
     
  8. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    The Hyperion Cantos, very complex plot, and complex characters.

    Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I would not call that a simple plot though I suppose if you boiled it down to the battles and wars within it, you might mistakenly think it was simple.

    Code Name Verity, I don't think that was a simple plot either. Again, it all you see is the superficial story line, you might conclude differently.

    The Girl on the Train, simple plot, very complex characters.

    The Darkest Corners, it's another one where you might mistakenly think the plot simple but it wasn't, and the characters were complex.
     
  9. AdiraAugust

    AdiraAugust New Member

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    Hi. New here. Just going around getting to know folks.

    There's a classic book titled The Bridge of San Luis Rey. This bridge in a village collapses. People on it fall into a ravine and die. The simple story is, our protag wants to know why? Why would God kill those 6 people. (Or however many) So, it's this character delving into these people's lives looking for an answer. What do we find out? Same thing Job did, but the real revelation is - no one isn't complex.

    If you think about it, something as simple as going to the store for milk and bread can be a quest fraught with drama and danger if you're schizophrenic. Or have PTSD. Or are in a wheelchair. IMO, interesting characters are the plot, really. Others believe in "plot driven."

    Hey! Did you see Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise? Great film. Really complex. But the story is this guy and his character arc. It's like Die Hard, the great action classic. Nothing without the wonderful characters of villain and hero, totally not one-dimensional.

    For me, (and many disagree) character is all there is, really. Everything else is just the obstacle course they run.
     
  10. Partridge

    Partridge Senior Member

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    I think it's true. You can have a book with the most amazing, twist filled plot but if the characters are one dimensional and dull, you're not going to finish reading it.

    Characters make books. Look at Of Mice and Men. The plot is about two men who go and work on a ranch, and one of them kills some mice and hurts someone. That's pretty much it. But nearly all of the characters are so complex, with their own dreams, pretenses and demons to battle, it makes the book impossible to put down.

    I think Steinback was so successful because he understood how people tick. I don't think his success had anything to do with his story telling credentials. None of his plots are ground-breaking in the 21st Century. But his characters have stood the test of time brilliantly, by leaping out of the page and gripping you until you finish the book.

    Silas Marner. Oh my God. What a slow, heavy going hard-to-read book that is. From memory there isn't much of a plot. But Silas is so believable, you are compelled to finish the book to see how he turns out.

    Think about that! Really think.
     
  11. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Are we just randomly naming books we like, rather than looking for some criteria of "successful"? That seems likely to skew any results we come up with...
     
  12. Partridge

    Partridge Senior Member

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    Probably. But I'm guessing we like them for a reason.

    I could name films/books I don't like.

    One of the worst films I've ever seen is the Day After Tomorrow. Cool premise for the any form of entertainment: OMG THE WORLD IS ENDING!!!?! But in my view it's an unforgivably s**t film. When water is lapping around the throat of the main protagonist, I was more interested in picking dirt from under my finger nails than watching the film, because I didn't care about the character. Why? Because he was two dimensional and didn't really have a personality.

    To quote my namesake when he was talking about Star Wars: "I mean, what a waste of everyone's time."
     
  13. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Potatoes again? Supporter Contributor

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    I agree, and I shouldn't say this because a) I haven't read it, and b) I know there are some people here who recommend it, but Day After Tomorrow seemed like one of those "Save the Cat" plot generator movies, where you can tell, to the minute, where the action beats will be, and interchange the names and backstories of all the characters with those of any of its brother (or sister) films. Without opening the whole tropes battle yet again, if you're going into your story with the intention of rigorously following a set of plot tropes, you're going to have to be very, very good at characterizing to hold my interest.

    ETA: The Disaster Movie Unholy Trinity (probably others, but I'm tired):

    Dante's Peak
    The Day After Tomorrow
    Volcano

    True, two of them are about volcanoes, but swap any character from one to the other and their fates will be identical.
     
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  14. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn, comes to mind.

    Mid level criminal/drug smuggler has to deliver an
    alien ship to someone.
    Complex Characters-Simple Plot

    I don't like the use of movies v. books concept as they
    are two different mediums. Books don't suffer from
    run time problems, and have to cut out important
    elements to fit a time restriction.

    Look at the Terminator movies.
    Simpleish Characters-Complex and Convoluted Plot.
    Reason I say it is convoluted is when you examine the
    timeline of the series, which is all over the place just
    to make the whole thing work, in terms of the plot.

    Though it falls in the category with the Aliens franchise,
    as they both have rich story lines in a comic series outside
    of the movies. So does Star Wars, but it also has books on top
    of the comic series. And the comics have both plots and characters
    that are complex, for these series.

    Though on the whole we like simple plots and complex characters,
    because we would rather focus on them and their evolution in the
    story over what they are actually doing. Think about it, one of the
    simplest plot devices in most cases is War. Pretty simple, two or more
    sides trying to achieve some goal with destructive force. Not really
    all that interesting on the surface. However, the participants in the
    story are complex, because they know they could go at any second,
    and the longer they live the more evident that this becomes as they
    have much more to lose.
    The Warhammer 40K series is a perfect example of this.

    Horror is even simpler in some ways. Big scary monster (what ever),
    shows up in the last half/third to terrorize the protagonist(s). The
    beginning is pretty typical where they build the complexity of the
    key characters that are going to be antagonized later on. Unless
    you can pull of a good singular character psychological horror
    is when you can hit the elements a bit earlier on, and build upon
    that to make it all more complex.
    Horror movies are a dime a dozen (more like a dime for 5 dozen these
    days). :p

    Really though at the end of the day, you are going to focus on the models
    of Character and Plot, that best work for you. Either can be complex as you
    want, or as simple as you want.

    "What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular."
     
  15. Laurus

    Laurus Disappointed Idealist Contributor

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    Right, so, I'm hearing a general consensus that characters should be the interesting and/or complex ones, rather than the plot. Which makes sense, since the characters are the actors with agency and the plot is the unfolding of events that result from their actions. I'll uh...I'll start with The Great Gatsby though. I need something short before my reading break. Still, now I wonder what the difference between a character-driven story and plot-driven story are. Does the distinction even hold any meaning since, as far as I'm aware, every story needs both characters and plot to move the story forward?
     
  16. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Literary works are more character driven. Genre works tend to be more plot driven. Of course, this isn't always true, but it seems like an easy way to divide the two approaches in a general or common way.
     
  17. Laurus

    Laurus Disappointed Idealist Contributor

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    I had to look up the difference between the two, but now that I have, yeah, that makes sense. So thank you, that's helpful.
     
  18. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I disagree with that - I think there are loads of genre works (especially in some genres, like romance) that are primarily character driven.

    I think of literary works as being prose driven, if that makes sense.
     
  19. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    Best breakdown I've seen was:

    Commercial: plot driven
    Up-market: character driven
    Literary: prose driven
     
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  20. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    IDK, the diff between the two Lit and Genre.

    But plot driven to me, seems to not allow the
    characters to deviate from the main objective
    that is set in front of them. Also since the plot
    is running the show, it at times gets to fill in
    things that would make things either easier
    or harder because the plot demands it.
    Or the plot pulled it out of its ass, just to show
    that it has all the control over the puppets it
    is manipulating in a straight forward direction.

    Character driven is when the plot is not the main
    focus for them, leading them directly from point
    to point, just to get to the end. Instead they can
    deviate off the main path at anytime, and come
    back to it later. And the plot cannot force them
    with special pleading to walk the straight and
    narrow path through manipulation that may or
    may not be contrived just to push itself along.

    But both can suffer from continuity errors, so each
    has its strengths/weaknesses. As well as your preference
    in regards to how the story goes. Some like to take
    a simple stroll without much option. And some like
    having a lot of forks in the road to see something new,
    while still knowing where the main path is.

    As for prose driven. I had no idea pretty language and
    metaphors could be a central part of a story.
     
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  21. Malisky

    Malisky Fortune cookie Contributor

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    I think that what this means is that the character drives the plot. Decisions, dilemmas, thoughts, etc, making us focus on why we are interested about the plot. We first have to care about the characters. You can have all the plot you want, but with boring characters you'll get a boring book. Fiction is not a book about facts, about what happened. It's more personal. It's about narration, characters and interesting circumstances. You can have the most mundane, piece of life plot, but with interesting characters that give interesting remarks you get a page turner. You care about their way of thinking, their emotions, how they solve their issues and what you would do in their place. At least that's where I focus at as a reader.
     
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  22. Laurus

    Laurus Disappointed Idealist Contributor

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    This method certainly seems to be the more fruitful one. If plots were the focus, they would have to evolve to be more detailed and complex as all the easy ones got written about over time. But you can recycle one plot a hundred times with a hundred different casts and get something worthwhile from most of them. Man. Now I got this itch to write the most mundane plot I can and try to turn it into something great by just having the right characters.

    Neither did I. The breakdown Homer gave is new to me for sure. I can think of some books whose prose certainly stands out, but not so much so that they drove the plot. Unless maybe it just means it uses bigger words? Yeah, I have no idea.
     
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  23. big soft moose

    big soft moose An Admoostrator Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Literary books often have a 'message' above and beyond the plot - to the point in some cases that the message obscures plots and characters.... also they tend to be quite heavy on descriptors sometimes seemingly for the sake of having the beautiful description, where a genre author would probably kill the darling
     
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  24. Jupie

    Jupie Senior Member

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    I do think that characters often make a good story and a plot, no matter how complex or intriguing is more of a cerebral enjoyment or a conceptual construct that may please the intellect but not the spirit. That said, a good story combines character with many other elements, which is the gift of a brilliant storyteller. I try to avoid any hard fast rule to this. Take 'The Dark Tower' series, a wonderful series of books in my opinion. It has amazing characters but the story is also very interesting and quite complex in the way it's mapped out and the way it feeds on your imagination. I think we like to get lost in fantasy and escapism.
     
  25. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    It's no so much that the prose drives the plot but that the prose drives the readership attraction. You don't read Faulkner, McCarthy, Atwood, or Toni Morrison for the plots because often times not a lot of things actually happen. You read them for the language, descriptions, imagery, and emotions that the prose conjures. It stimulates a different part of the imagination.

    Now contrast that with Stephen King. You don't read him for the prose or the characters. His books are pure plot. The imagination is always wondering what will happen next. That's not to say that King doesn't write good characters because he occasionally does. Just that the characters aren't terribly important to the driving engine of the book. King doesn't sit around thinking about characters. He thinks about a haunted car, a haunted hotel, a killer clown, a killer dog, etc.... Plot, plot, plot. The characters are almost ancillary. Stephen King wrote in On Writing about how he was always frustrated that people never asked him about his use of language. Well, duh, dude, you're writing about fucking clowns!

    None if it is cut and dry. All books have characters, prose and a plot. And a focus on one does not necessarily exclude the others. There are plenty of books that hit all three notes (No Country for Old Men comes to mind there - Cormac McCarthy's one real "plot" novel). It's where the writer places the emphasis that determines wherever the story slots into literary or commercial. And the critics of course. The critics aren't going to focus on King's characters any more than they would hammer Toni Morrison for having an action packed plot.

    As for the OP about simple plots and complex characters I would say that the simpler the story the more room the characters have to be awesome. Easy plots are user friendly and free the reader's attention span to see what the characters are doing, whereas a lot of the dynamism might get lost in a convoluted plot that forces the reader to pay attention to what is happening on each page. Think of it like driving. If the road is a straight simple highway you can watch the scenery, roll a joint, fiddle with the radio (or your passenger), shoot a few texts, etc.... But if you're twisting and turning through a city dodging dump-trucks and traffic lights you don't have time to do anything else. You have to watch the road.
     
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