Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters
So there's a malevolent empire
threatening to take over the world
, and only a small pocket
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.
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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.
- Fullmetal Alchemist is somewhere in the middle of the scale, as it is driven both by the brothers' personal quests and conflicts, and by the wider-reaching conspiracy they find themselves fighting against.
- 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.
- Most superhero comic books, namely the ones in the DC and Marvel universes, have each hero deal with the external conflicts of defeating powerful supervillains, and the internal conflicts of resolving their past issues.
- Bruce Wayne of the Batman fame originally lost both his parents to a criminal during his childhood, forcing him to become Batman himself to battle crime and make sure no one goes through the same tragedy he used to go through. He also doesn't bother to fall in love with anyone of the opposite gender, out of fear that the villains might (a) use them to get to him, and (b) traumatize him like in his childhood.
- The Fantastic Four possess a bad habit of fighting amongst each other, and at times even more so than against their villains! The Thing is selfish, Human Torch is brash and impatient, Mr. Fantastic is the strict leader, and Invisible Woman struggles to keep the team together. Those differences would, in turn, make them bound to create tons of internal conflicts!
- Spider-Man was a nerdy teenager that everyone evaded out of jealousy for his good grades and cooperative behavior at high school. As soon as he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and loses his Uncle Ben to a wanted burglar, he would dress up as Spider-Man to not only fight crime and keep people safe, but also gain the positive attention he couldn't attain as Peter Parker.
- Superman originally hailed from Krypton, until he was orphaned by his parents to be saved from the planet's inevitable explosion. As he was adopted and raised in the rural town of Smallville, then moved to Metropolis to work at the Daily Planet as his alter-ego, Clark Kent, he struggles long and hard to fit into a world he doesn't belong in. His Clark Kent side was to make sure he could interact with other normal human beings so that no one would discriminate against him for his Superman-side's origins as an alien from Krypton.
- The Lord of the Rings series 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- The main protagonist, Luke Skywalker, goes on a dangerous Bar Mitzvah of death in order to not only become a full-fledged Jedi, but also a full-fledged adult human being. This would involve helping the Rebel Alliance overthrow the Empire, as well as saving his beloved father, Anakin Skywalker, from his own dark side.
- The other two protagonists, Han Solo and Princess Leia, both start out distrustful to each other, just because the latter was a princess and the former was a smuggler. As the original trilogy progressed, they would put aside their differences, work together to help Luke defeat the Empire, and even romance each other!
- 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.
- Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined) is an excellent example of a show that is in the middle of the scale, with very strong character development and very strong plot focus. The whole series follows a strong, compelling plot, and it never loses focus on the interesting, flawed, and developing characters at the center of its story.
- ...until it stopped following a strong, compelling plot. Turned out they had no idea where the story was heading.
- 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.
- 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 arc—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.
- In 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 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.
- While most people believe the Golden Sun franchise's characters are flat and under-developed, they weren't that much so, as they do have internal conflicts of their own. The external plot involves questing to prevent alchemy's return in the first Golden Sun, and restoring it in Golden Sun: The Lost Age. Meanwhile, the internal conflicts include the following:
- Isaac and Felix both desire to save Weyard, but their methods of doing so oppose each other, meaning that they must decide on how they must deal with each other in the process. That is, until Felix's group saves Isaac's group on Jupiter Lighthouse and told them their side of the story, thus earning them allies out of Isaac's group.
- Ivan is the adoptive son of a powerful merchant named Hammet, and joined Isaac and Garret when he was unable to travel with Hammet. However, the player is given the option to save Hammet, and in exchange gain information on delivering the Shaman's Rod to Hesperia, resourceful for Golden Sun: The Lost Age. As soon as he learned that he originally hailed from Contigo and his sister was Master Hamma, he then had to reluctantly leave his home and sister behind to help Felix restore alchemy to Weyard.
- Mia joins Isaac's group to stop her evil cousin, Alex, from destroying Weyard, while deciding whether or not to fight her own flesh and blood.
- Sheba hailed from Lalivero and was adopted and raised by Faran, but joined Felix's group to travel to Contigo and Jupiter Lighthouse, so that she could learn about her past, but with failing results.
- Piers is sent by his King Hydros of Lemuria to confirm his research on Weyard's decline, but was unable to return to his home due to the perpetual fog and strong currents surrounding it. As soon as he returns home, however, he finds his mother dead and has to visit her grave to mourn her loss.
- Heavy Rain's external conflict mostly revolved around capturing the Origami Killer before he kills Ethan Mars' surviving son, Shaun. The internal conflicts, however, included these:
- Ethan Mars lost his eldest son, Jason, and didn't want to lose his youngest son, Shaun, as well. This explains why he does all sorts of harmful things to himself and others around him to save Shaun from the Origami Killer.
- As the other two protagonists, Madison Paige and Norman Jayden, quest to capture the Origami Killer and rescue Ethan's kidnapped son, the former would fight off chronic insomnia, while the latter does battle against triptocaine addiction.
- The Kingdom Hearts franchise had many characters face off not only against their foes, but also their own friends.
- Kingdom Hearts, Chain of Memories, and Kingdom Hearts II had Sora decide between saving only one of his two childhood friends, Kairi (the metaphor for Sora's light) and Riku (the metaphor for Sora's darkness). By the time Kingdom Hearts II ends, he manages to find a way to save both, since the two were capable of handling themselves anyway.
- Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days had Roxas, Xion, and Axel struggle to find a balance between their bond of friendship with each other, and their duties and responsibilities to the malevolent Organization XIII and its leader, Xemnas. The story is mostly character-driven, as while outside circumstances often act on the trio, they tend to serve as catalysts for their development.
- Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep would also pit the three friends, including Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, against each other, and not just against Master Xehanort and his apprentice, Vanitas. The reason was because Terra was succumbing to the darkness, forcing Aqua, the new keyblade-master, to slay him on sight because of it, and thus leaving Ventus to decide between saving Terra or Aqua, much like Sora's decision between saving Kairi or Riku.
- Like most other role-playing games, Mass Effect has a large cast of characters, each facing an external conflict and an internal conflict.
- Mass Effect 1 is in the middle of the spectrum. It had the main protagonist, Commander Shepard (and in turn, the player controlling him), face two conflicts as expected in a main protagonist: Chase Saren throughout the galaxy (the main arc), and decide whether to take the Paragon route or the Renegade route to do so (Shepard's personal arc). The two chosen backgrounds each player gives to his Shepard simply adds more to the character's personality, as implied by the bonus Paragon/Renegade points gained from each of the two chosen backgrounds. Is Shepard afraid of killing innocents because he wanted his actions to be consistent with the day he saved Elysium from the Skyllian Blitz? Or, does he show no remorse to the people he kills, just as he displayed none of it during the raid on Torfan?
- Mass Effect 2 falls heavily on the character side, as was more about Shepard's teammates than Shepard himself, as they each have to decide between confronting the Collectors, or conflicting with their respective pasts. That's where Shepard comes in, as he has to help them resolve their pasts in order to increase the likelihood of surviving the final suicide mission.
- The Metal Gear Solid franchise had Solid Snake face off against two threats, one per front. Externally, Snake battles against long-time foes such as his malevolent biological father, Big Boss, as well as his equally evil twin brother, Liquid Snake/Ocelot. Internally, however, he fights what the majority of other military soldiers would face as well, in the form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
- If anything, the same can be said for the huge variety of friends and foes Solid Snake would develop throughout his quest. Otacon quests to struggle with the deaths of three women in his life, including Sniper-Wolf (Metal Gear Solid), Emma Emmerich (Metal Gear Solid 2), and Naomi Hunter (Metal Gear Solid 4), while Raiden quests to fight off his origin as a child soldier throughout Metal Gear Solid 2, and Meryl Silverburgh would have frequent family arguments with her father/uncle, Col. Roy Campbell, about her becoming a soldier like him.
- 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.
- As soon as Lloyd Irving learns that Kratos Aurion was his true father the whole time, he has to decide whether or not to redeem him of his past crimes of betrayal.
- Colette Brunel was the chosen of Sylvarant, but as soon as she loses her humanity only to regain it again thanks in part to Lloyd and the others, she must free herself from her destiny at any cost.
- Genis and his older sister, Raine, were born half-elves in a world that despises them, so they must learn to cope with their origins even if it might mean getting themselves killed.
- During her failed pact with the summon-spirit, Volt, Sheena betrayed her home village of Izumo to save her own life, but since then learned to develop actual courage to atone for her betrayal.
- At a certain point of the game, Zelos betrays his friends to Mithos Yggdrassil to free himself from his destiny as chosen of Tethe'alla. If any time the player manages to unlock a conversation with Kratos in the town of Flaneur, Zelos will die and be replaced by Kratos.
- When Regal's fiancee, Alicia, turned into a giant monster, he was forced to kill her out of self-defense. Since then, he surrendered himself to the authorities to punish himself for murdering her, while Alicia's sister, Prescea, vows revenge against him for what happened to her. However, as soon as they join Lloyd Irving, the two would put aside their differences and become friends to reunite the two worlds with Lloyd.
- The Xenosaga trilogy had the various main protagonists face off against not only the Gnosis, the U-TIC Organization, the Testament group, and many other external threats, but also their pasts:
- Shion Uzuki, the primary protagonist, lost her parents during her childhood, followed by her boyfriend, Kevin Winnicott, and thus had to decide between succumbing to those tragedies, or putting them aside for her new friends, including her assistant, Allen Ridgeley, her robot creation, KOS-MOS, and the variety of other friends she, Allen, and KOS-MOS gain in their quest.
- Jr., also known as Rubedo, was originally a weapon built to combat U-DO, known as a URTV, alongside his two "brothers," Gaignun Kukai/Nigredo, and the misguided Albedo. He also once fell in love with Dr. Joachim Mizrahi's daughter, Sakura, until Albedo killed her in front of Jr. out of jealousy and misguidance. Since then, as soon as he'd meet with the realian copy of Sakura, MOMO, and the rest of the main heroes, he would also struggle between his tragic past and his new friends, MOMO included.
- 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 confilct, 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.)
- The Simpsons is powerfully notable for this, especially in the form of Bart and Lisa, and how they interact with their peers and teachers at Springfield Elementary. Both know that they could either become so-called "lame teacher's pets," in other words making other children envious of them, just by doing well at school, or become "cool toward other kids" through bad grades and acts of misbehavior. This is why both Bart and Lisa took separate routes, with the former taking the route of appealing toward other children as much as possible at the expense of disrespecting authority for it, and the other taking the route of appealing toward said authority at the expense of making other kids jealous.
- 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.
- Just as it's common in fiction for characters to face an overall external conflict and their own, smaller internal conflicts, it's just as common for people in real life. For example, a student goes to school, as during his time there he develops two conflicts of his own. The external conflict would normally revolve around studying at school, like he's supposed to. The internal conflict, meanwhile, would be whether or not he should, as he might make other kids jealous any time he develops good grades.