Writing Lessons #3: Character VS Story

I’ve personally often wondered which element of writing is more important to craft a great tale: character or story. I think most of us can agree that both are essential to make fiction work. Without good characters, the people that the story follows become meaningless devices only there to play a certain role (hero, villain, romantic interest, comic relief, etc.) that we have no connection to and don’t care about at all (as we discussed in the previous topic). Without a good story, the characters will wander around with no clear direction and, however enjoyable they may be to follow, the story will not go anywhere or it won’t go to any place that is actually interesting. So it’s obvious that both character and story are necessary to create fiction that leaves an impact. But which of the two is the most crucial? The answer finally hit me recently when I saw this:

Justice League Poster 6

What does this poster for the Justice League movie have to do with this discussion, you may wonder? It’s because I realised it gave me the answer to my question and also settled why the DC movies (while not necessarily atrocious) just seem to be pale imitations of the generally very enjoyable films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose success these movies are clearly designed to cash in on. Let’s examine the poster, shall we? What does this poster say to you? Because to me, this is what it says:

Justice League Poster 1
“Look at me being dark and gritty.”
Justice League Poster 2
“Look at me being dark and gritty!”
Justice League Poster 3
“Look at me being the goddamn Dark-and-Gritty Man!”
Justice League Poster 4
“Look at me being dark, gritty and less interesting than your washing machine.”
Justice League Poster 5
“Look at me having slightly more personality than the people next to me, but mostly still being dark and gritty.”

What this poster made me realise is that I don’t give a crap about ANY of these characters! None of them are connecting with me in any way, shape or form! Neither did Henry Cavill’s Superman in Man of Steel. Is it a fault of the source material? No. While I’ve never been an avid fan of the DC comics, practically every character of Batman: The Animated Series or Batman Beyond felt more vibrant and alive than anything I’ve seen in the recent DC films, so it’s clearly not the source material. Is it a fault of super-hero films in genera, thenl? Obviously not. See stuff like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Captain America: Civil War or the excellent Logan. With all of those films, there was something that allowed me to connect with the main characters, at the very least. While some have made the argument that Christopher Nolan did not do the iconic persona of Batman justice, there’s no doubt that he made us sympathise with the story of Bruce Wayne. Throughout Civil War, we understand perfectly well why Captain America/Steve Rogers and Iron Man/Tony Stark are at odds with each other and how each is trying to fight for what they believe in, no matter how flawed their beliefs are. In Logan, you clearly feel Wolverine’s pain, the pain of a man who is just trying to live and care for what little he has left after losing almost everything. Logan is a case of a dark and gritty super-hero film done right – it’s because the writers, actors and director succesfully make us care about the people in it. By contrast, there is rarely something human in the DC films that makes us feel anything: the characters often remain bland and boring, they’re there to look awesome and do awesome hero-stuff and that’s pretty much it.

Tony Stark 1

To give you another simple example to prove my point (let’s stick with the super-heroes): how many funny, interesting, human or otherwise memorable moments can you recall about Superman in Man of Steel? I’m struggling to think of one. Now, how many funny, interesting or otherwise memorable moments can you recall about Robert Downey Jnr.’s Tony Stark in Iron Man alone? I’ve got three off the top of my head:

“I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair”

“If you douse me again and I’m not on fire, I’m donating you to a city college”

The Cheeseburger scene

Suicide Squad 1

This contrast also explains why, of the DC films, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker (Jared Leto) have been by far the most popular of these new iterations of the comic book characters: their sheer insanity and bizarre, unhealthy romance makes them unique, colourful and interesting figures to follow. You know you could put these two in a room and let them watch paint dry and it would still be fun to see, because something weird is obviously bound to happen with those two. They’re the exception that proves the rule.

So, having spent this much time talking about the importance of character, does that mean character is the clear winner of ‘Most Important Element in Writing’ here? Not exactly. Rather, the answer I came to was that the only story that matters is the character’s. Sure, you can craft the most amazing, intriguing, creative, elobarate, hilarious and dazzling story, but none of it matters much if it doesn’t fit with the characters and the journey they are going through in their lives at this time. The best works of fiction have this natural confluence between character and story. Ideally, the story flows naturally forth from the characters, rather than the characters (no matter how interesting they may be) being forced into an artificial construct of events. It’s a union: instead of it being ‘Character VS Story’, the ideal is that Story = Character and Character = Story.

If you imagine the story as the body, then the characters are its heart and soul: they are the vital energy that’s necessary to make the whole thing function. They aren’t just necessary, they are essential: neither can exist without the other. And at their best, they are both strong and in perfect balance and part of a single whole.

That, at least, is my personal view these days of the issue of character VS story in writing. Do you agree or disagree? Or have other thoughts on this topic? Share them in the comments below!

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