Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters

So there's a malevolent empire threatening to take over the world, and only a small pocket of resistance must combat it by any means necessary. However, each of the resistance troops have their own backstories relating to why they're fighting said empire, as well as internal conflicts that mostly relate to deciding between succumbing to their pasts, or leaving them behind for the present. So now, they must fight two conflicts: The malevolent empire (the plot), and their own pasts (the characters).

When creating a work of fiction, the writers often have to develop it on a macro level (the overall plot), as well as a micro level (the individual characters). On the macro-level, the various characters have to unite to achieve a common goal, from surviving an island, to overthrowing a villain, to preventing a cataclysmic event from destroying the world. On the micro level, meanwhile, each character faces a difficult internal conflict, whether it's with a past crime, a disease or disability, or a lost loved one.

Here's what the story can be like, based on what it's focusing on:

  • More Plot Than Characters: Everyone remembers the external conflict and how it would later on be resolved, but the characters range between there for the sake of it, and almost non-existent. Mostly an action/adventure, mystery/thriller, or horror. Hard science fiction can follow this, as the central plot is intended to be the focus, not the interpersonal relationships. It's one of the issues creating the Sci-Fi Ghetto.
  • Equal Focus Between Plot and Characters: The plot and characters don't interfere with each other, and instead work in concert with each other to create something memorable.
  • Less Plot Than Characters: The overall story isn't very memorable because of how boring and mundane it might be, but the characters gain a lot of development, as they resolve their own respective internal conflicts, rather than an overall external one. Mostly a drama, comedy, or romance.

Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Bleach leans heavily on the character side of the plot, with the author suggesting that whenever he encounters Writer's Block, he solves it by adding new characters.
  • Naruto's is slightly on the character spectrum, with some of the characters' main conflicts and personal desires driving the plot.
  • One Piece is slightly on the plot side of the scale. There's a large cast with various personal problems and conflicts, but they largely take a back seat to the plot unless they become relevant.
  • Death Note is heavily on the plot side of the scale. Though characters do undergo development, it is usually very simple and straightforward, so it does not garner much screentime. Their pasts are rarely mentioned and if so, only in passing.
  • Girls und Panzer falls on the plot side of the spectrum. Some of the cast's personal conflicts and development is shown, but it does not take up much time.
  • Saki is heavily on the characters side of the spectrum. The plot mainly consists of a mahjong tournament, but all the characters have their various reasons for competing shown in depth.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion is very character-oriented, progressively so as the series advances (particularly from episode 14 on) to the point that the last two episodes completely reject traditional narrative to display the inner thoughts and feelings of the major characters in a hasty version of talk therapy. Not surprising, given that the series’ creator, Hideaki Anno, suffered from depression himself and read a lot about psychology because of it.
  • Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches is largely on the character side of the scale, with the plot mostly revolving around the eponymous character helping people with their personal problems and troubled lives - and the Series Goal is to find out why he has his copying power and what hides in his lost memories so that he can get to know himself better. While several characters are good fighters, major conflicts are almost solely solved with battles of wits and talking.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is initially heavily character-oriented, the earlier parts' plots could be considered Excuse Plots to provide a context for the awesome characters to fight each others, and the story focuses more on how the characters drive the events than the events themselves. The latest part JoJolion is however a Quest for Identity where the plot and the characters take an equal part in the overall story.
  • Date A Live is very character-driven and increasingly so as the series goes on. Shido's relationships with the girls are always front and center in every story. Plots involving the world at large do exist, but it's the charracters' emotions and development that move the series forward.

    Fan Fiction 
  • My Little Unicorn is on the extreme end of the plot side of the spectrum, in that the author explicitly says that he believes complex characterization is confusing and can hold back the plot.
  • Perfection Is Overrated leans somewhat on the characters side of the spectrum, as most of the Himes' personal conflicts have a great deal of focus, and the SUEs' personality flaws influence their actions, which drives the plot.
  • Team 8 is somewhere in the middle, with characters' personal conflicts getting a fair amount of development, but also being tied to the plot. Naruto is ostracized in Konoha, as a result of a Government Conspiracy against him. Hinata suffers abuse from her father, who is also part of that conspiracy. Kurenai, while mentoring a team of genin, often thinks back to the fate of her old team, and the belief that someone in the village, quite possibly the aforementioned conspiracy, was responsible. Even Shino, who has less at stake, finds himself learning more about his teammates' problems and getting involved in them, such as by learning that Naruto is host of the Nine-Tailed Fox.
  • Necessary To Win lies toward the characters side of the spectrum, as the characters' various conflicts drive the plot. Entire chapters, known as Interludes, deal with characters' backstories, which become relevant in the present.
  • The Stalking Zuko Series leans somewhere toward the character side of the spectrum, with it largely being about Zuko and Katara's relationship.
  • Sonic X: Dark Chaos is heavy on the plot side, although the rewrite does add more characterization to everyone to help explain the plot.

    Films - Animated 
  • Frozen is mainly about two sisters, Elsa and Anna, reconnecting after many years apart, and about Elsa's struggles with her magical powers, making it somewhat heavily on the characters side.

    Films - Live-Action 
  • The original Star Wars trilogy falls in the middle of the scale, being about more than just about a small group of rebels doing battle against the Galactic Empire, a force several times larger and more powerful than them. It was also about several issues that were smaller than the rebellion itself, two of them being the most vital of them all (Luke's quest to become a full-fledged Jedi, and Han and Leia's relationship).
  • Interstellar falls into the plot end of the scale. While some characters like Cooper and Murphy do have their moments, the movie's main focus is both their respective plots - finding life on other planets and solving the unsolvable equation.
  • Sunshine is on the character side of the scale. The journey to restore the sun isn't focused on too much, and more emphasis is on the characters' reactions to certain situations.
  • A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is on the character side. The plot of both the past and present portions - the gang war in Astoria and Dito reconnecting with his family - is mostly flavouring. Far more time is spent with Dito and the supporting characters like Laurie and Antonio.
  • Sunshine Cleaning, despite its gimmick of sisters cleaning up after murders and crime scenes, is entirely character focused. The story is more of a Slice of Life showing how the business causes Rose and Norah to grow as people.
  • Stop Loss looks like it's going to be on the plot end of the scale - a soldier trying to avoid being sent back to Iraq due to Loophole Abuse in his contract. But the plot takes a backseat to his PTSD and examines the general feeling of the soldiers coming home from the war - and how they can no longer relate to their peers.
  • The Best Years of Our Lives is on the character end, examining the mental states of soldiers returning from World War II and how they can't fit into a society that's moved on without them.
  • Dazed and Confused and its Spiritual Successor Everybody Wants Some!! are entirely character-driven stories getting to know the various people who pop in and out of the story.
  • The Alien franchise shows that multiple films can fall on either end of the scale:
    • Alien is plot-focused - with the crew trying to get rid of the alien before it kills them all.
    • Aliens is in the middle. The story balances the marines trying to stop the aliens with Ripley's surrogate mother relationship towards Newt.
    • Alien3 is character-focused - as Ripley is forced to contemplate her position in the world as another alien runs wild.
    • Alien: Resurrection is in the middle. The plot is balanced between the survivors getting off the Auriga, and Ripley's split allegiance to the aliens.
  • Midnight Special is plot-focused - with the entirety of the film about getting Alton to where he needs to be. All the other characters are introduced in contrast to that.

    Literature 
  • The Lord of the Rings falls in the middle. There is an overarching plot of the quest to reach Mount Doom, but it is also driven by the characters' internal conflicts. For example, Frodo doesn't just have to reach Mount Doom so that he can destroy the One Ring, but do so while resisting its temptation.
  • The Deryni works are equally plot and character driven, largely because many of the protagonists have to deal with the powers and the persecution that come with being Deryni, as well as the strife between the rival kingdoms of Gwynedd and Torenth. In particular, Denis Arilan and Duncan McLain have to resolve a basic personal conflict between their arcane abilities and their vocations; they both choose to be priests, but Denis chooses to keep his secret as far as possible, while Duncan eventually chooses to live openly as a Deryni priest. Alaric Morgan has spent years cultivating an ominous reputation, yet he has to adjust when a new king (Kelson, himself half Deryni) takes the throne and works to end the persecutions and regain lost knowledge. Kelson has to grow into his own as a man and a king, cope with his heritage on a personal level and cope with rebellions, church schism, and the rival kingdom to the east.
  • The Catcher in the Rye is almost completely about the characterization of its main character, Holden Caulfield. There isn't a plot insofar as there are a series of events that Holden goes through.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: The Original Series was powerfully renown for this, as while the show's trademark trio, including Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, face a huge variety of external conflicts in each episode, they also internally argue amongst each other on how to resolve each external conflict. The calm and intelligent Spock would often pick the logical-yet-immoral choice, while the brash and emotional McCoy goes for the illogical-yet-morally-correct choices, leaving Kirk to either side with one of his two crewmates, or invent a third option that satisfies both sides.
  • Lost turns this into a pretty monumental task by combining it with Loads and Loads of Characters. Almost every one of the many main characters has a heavily layered backstory to accompany the main plot of the series, and they are represented in flashbacks, flash forwards, and their own invention: flash sideways.
  • For the first eight or so seasons, Survivor focused more on the players day to day lives at camp, but in later seasons, it increasingly focuses on game strategy and twists to the point where most of the characters are flat out ignored.
  • Law & Order is on the plot-centric side of the scale. The focus is on the plot of each episode, and there's not much character development. In fact, all of the main characters are replaced, and nothing about the show really changes.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer is in the middle of the scale. There is a strong plot to all of the episodes, seasonal and even series-long story arcs. There is also a lot of character development, for all of the characters, and some of the plots, small-scale and large, even focus on character development. Angel is in a similar space, but slightly more plot-driven most of the time.
  • Roswell moves around on the scale. The first and last seasons are very character-driven, despite the sci-fi plots. The second season is much more plot centered. Both styles work, too.
  • Gossip Girl is on the character-centric side of the scale. The plot is there, and it is important, but what it really does is drive the character development. What's happening is important because of what it does to the characters and how they react to it, feel about it, and grow from it.
  • Criminal Minds is mostly on the plot side, although the show does try to flesh out its characters somewhat and does have character story arcs, like Hotch and the Reaper, Reid and his girlfriend, "Profiler, Profiled"/"Restoration" and the Prentiss/Doyle arc.
  • This tends to differ in the multiple incarnations of Super Sentai. Some of them are very episodic and tend to focus more on the characters than an overarching plot. Examples of this are Tokusou Sentai Dekaranger, Engine Sentai Goonger and Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger. Other series have an overarching story, in which character development takes a backseat. Examples are Juken Sentai Gekiranger and Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters.
  • Charmed zig zagged through this. Earlier seasons - particularly the second - followed more character driven plots, and the supernatural stuff was only a bit of flavouring. Season 5 in particular was more plot-based, with various Monster of the Week storylines. Seasons 6-8 were a mix - featuring arc-based plots that still helped the characters grow.
  • Band of Brothers was in the middle. Despite dramatizing events in the second World War, a lot of time was spent emphasising the soldiers' reactions to the events going on around them. Notably the miniseries has a Rotating Protagonist to document a certain soldier's character growth in one particular event; Albert Blithe is depicted as a reluctant soldier who Took a Level in Badass during the battle of Carentan, Eugene Roe is shown having trouble connecting to the men until the Battle of the Bulge etc.

    Theatre 
  • One the (many) reasons that Hamlet is considered such an important work of literature is that it was one of the first English plays ever to make a deliberate decision to focus on character over plot, when the dominant trend in Elizabethan theatre (largely thanks to the influence of Aristotle's Poetics) was to do the reverse. Though the play never completely wavers from its overarching plot-Hamlet's quest to avenge his father by killing Claudius-its exploration of Hamlet's troubled mental state dominates the play proper, with Hamlet regularly stopping the action to soliloquize about his existential angst and his emotional confusion.

    Video Games 
  • Final Fantasy VII is somewhat character driven, with many of the characters' personal struggles against their own pasts and weaknesses driving the plot.
  • Final Fantasy VI starts balanced between the war against the empire and the development of characters, but after the second visit to Narshe, it slowly skews towards being more about the characters. By the time the map changes to the world of ruin, Kefka is a complete afterthought, and the rest of the game's narrative is about uniting the cast for the final battle while helping them resolve their own personal struggles.
  • Final Fantasy XII focuses more on the overall plot of The Empire after it invaded Ashe's kingdom and how the takeover affected everyone. The protagonists aims to bring the empire down while several key players from said empire are looking for a way to wrestle fate from the controlling Ocuria so that people can define their own fates instead. While the main characters do get some development here and there, it's very light and everyone is already in their given roles with their backgrounds made clear.
  • Final Fantasy XIII is almost entirely character-driven until chapter 12 or so, when the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits finally sort out their issues and personal differences and become True Companions. After that, the overall plot kicks into full gear, but the characters still remain the most memorable aspect of the game.
  • Final Fantasy XIV focuses more on the plot than the characters, but there's still some form of character development that occurs over the months and years of patch updates and expansion packs. The main story mostly focuses on dealing with the Garlean Empire looming over everyone with possible invasion, the Ascians aiming to sow discord and chaos on the world, and primals that can suck up the life energy of the planet. The side quests teeters between having more focus on the characters and having a balance between characters and plot.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics Advance has more emphasis on character development with all the main characters dealing with their inner struggles and finding a way to deal with them in both the real world and the fantasy world while the main plot doesn't change much beyond "find a way to get back home", which is the main driving force of the main character's actions. Final Fantasy Tactics A2 shifts it more towards the plot a little bit and shifts it further towards that side in several side quests, many which have a long chain of quests to develop their stories with. The characters are more or less already defined, but some of them go through a few struggles and learn how to cope with their problems.
  • While most people believe the Golden Sun franchise's characters are flat and underdeveloped, they weren't that much so, as they do have internal conflicts of their own.
  • The three games in the Mass Effect series are on different points of the scale:
    • Mass Effect is in the middle of the spectrum. It had a clear main plot (stop Saren's plans) throughout, while also developing the characters in your party with long-term discussions and sidequests that explored their pasts.
    • Mass Effect 2 falls heavily on the character side. The focus is on character development of a large group of playable squadmates who have little connection to the main plot (stopping a mysterious race from kidnapping human colonists). The majority of the game is spent helping them dealing with issues their respective pasts to help them focus on surviving the final suicide mission.
    • Mass Effect 3 is extremely plot oriented, since the nature of that plot (finding a way to save every species in the galaxy from being exterminated by an incredibly powerful group of sentient spaceships) forces the personal lives of the characters to take a step back. A contributing factor was how any of the Mass Effect 2 characters could have died on the final mission, making it difficult to incorporate character development for them in the plot. Within the game itself, the Citadel DLC shifts the balance the other way, placing the characters and their respective antics into the limelight one final time.
  • While the Resident Evil franchise was more well-known for the external conflict against Umbrella Corp's T-Virus zombies, that doesn't mean it had no character-driven internal conflicts of its own, either. These internal conflicts mostly revolve around the characters' various interactions with each other, rather than their respective backstories, or lack thereof compared to Umbrella.
    • Resident Evil, for example, had multiple endings that changed depending on the player's actions. To get the best ending, the player has to rescue both Barry and Chris if he chose Jill as his character, or both Rebecca and Jill if he chose Chris.
  • Tales of Symphonia is more on the characters side of the spectrum, being chock-full of characters facing difficult internal conflicts throughout their quest to resolve the external conflict of uniting both worlds back to one.
  • Compared to Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II is much more character-driven, with almost every party member being the driving force behind one or more overarching plotlines, rather than serving as the support team and occasional distraction from the central conflict, as in the first game. It serves well to emphasize the game's ongoing theme of many minuscule, unrelated factors adding up to the major disaster that is foreshadowed right from the opening shots.
  • Due to being set After the End, Bastion only has four named characters, the rest being dead with the exception of The Ura. The game has an external conflict, but as the game goes on it is revealed that almost everything that happens in the plot can be traced back to the internal conflicts between the characters. (Rucks working on The Calamity and Zia's father causing it, Zulf reading the journal which leads to the second half of the game, etc.)
  • Blazblue: Its a series that goes through the entire scale, that started off more character driven given that the plot hadn't really kicked in yet, but slowly became more plot focused as the series went on. Its generally divided as followed:
    • The first game introduces and establishes the characters and their distinct personalities through their own individual story routes. There's very little plot to speak off until the game's True Ending, which reveals the series` most recurring antagonist. Which leads to...
    • Blazblue Continuum Shift: The villains begin making themselves known and what their plans are and have now started directly opposing the protagonists. Additionally, many of the characters experience their own personal struggles that they strive to over come and still retains the previous game's individual character routes.
    • Blazblue Chronophantasma: The villain's plans have nearly reached completion and most of the lingering character plots from the previous game are resolved, so most of the plot is dedicated to the series` setting and backstory and stopping the End of the World as We Know It. The plot structure in this game is more streamlined, with some characters getting less focus than in the previous two games.

    Webcomics 

    Web Video 

    Western Animation 
  • The original Madagascar leaned heavily towards the characters, specifically focusing on Alex the lion as he comes to terms with the fact that his best friends are supposed to be his prey.
    • The second was even more character-focused.
      • Alex reunites with his parents and has to deal with the high expectations they have of him.
      • Marty the zebra finds a herd to run with, but is unnerved to find all the other zebras are identical to him in every way.
      • Melman the giraffe thinks he is dying and has to deal with his own mortality, along with his long unspoken love for Gloria the hippo.
      • And Gloria must choose between Moto Moto, the handsome hippo who is attracted to her primarily for her looks, and Melman, who has been her friend for most of her life.
    • The third movie, however, is heavily focused on plot. The four stars are now on the run from an insanely dedicated animal control officer, and the majority of the movie focuses on their attempts to evade her, while trying to revive a struggling circus, which is their best ticket back to New York.
  • Steven Universe is very much on the character side of the spectrum. While there is a surprisingly dense plot, it's directly tied to the characters' actions, specifically resident Magical Girl Warriors the Crystal Gems. While there were subtle clues easily missed amongst the background scenery, it isn't until the 17th episode where the viewer sees there's a bit more going on beyond Steven's adventures and character growth. By the time the first major Wham Episode of "Mirror Gem" starts, half of the first season has passed, subtly developing the main and secondary cast. Tropes Are Not Bad as the slow pace and strong character focus amplifies the tension greatly when Homeworld Gems do show up. As the series goes on, the plot is revealed to be almost entirely shaped by the Crystal Gems. The Slice of Life themes stay grounded even while the plot majorly picks up. Whereas most cartoons would increase the drama according to how serious the storyline becomes, SU will happily dedicate an episode to a seemingly minor character. Long story short, this provides a massive Mood Whiplash as the Space Opera themes collide with a sleepy beach town grounded in Slice of Life.
  • The Teen Titans slides over to the character end more, and while season arcs are there, they are still driven, or at least guided, by the characters and their desires.

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