Screenwriting : Character before plot? by Joe Bousquin

Joe Bousquin

Character before plot?

Interesting argument for starting with character, instead of plot, at the outset of an idea. What do you guys think? Also, to follow on Courtney's post from the other day, what are the best screenwriting books that specifically focus on character first, plot second?

How Plot Can Kill Your Character - ScreenCraft
How Plot Can Kill Your Character - ScreenCraft
Every story begins at your Initial Stimulus - that spark of an idea that captured your imagination. The thing that got you excited and revved up. That initial flash of creativity you just knew would m…
Bill Costantini

Yes, most definitely. What happens in a story - the plot - happens because of characters. Well-rounded and memorable characters make films memorable, too. Boring, flat characters make for a boring, flat film. Motivations that aren't "true" to character make for unbelievable/generic/badly-written films. We root for "characters", and not "plot."

Craig D Griffiths

Characters are the most valuable asset and tool. However the world's best and well rounded character with nothing to do or achieve is a waste. They are symbiotic. It is like Ingredients and chefs.

Dan MaxXx

premise & character. That's chapter 1 & 2 from Lajos Egri. Characters proving your premise. The best movies have simple, clear plots.

Joe Bousquin

Dan, so true on simplicity. I recently re-read and then watched Michael Mann's Collateral. The plot is so simple -- an assassin gets into a cab and forces the driver to take him to five hits in one night. But the character of Max (Jamie Foxx) carries it.

Jeff Lyons

Ugh ... :) Plot is what your characters do on the page... what they do on the page is determined by who they are as people... in other words, plot is characterization in action ... sooooo... plot is character and character is plot. There is no practical difference. There's no such thing as a "plot driven story" vs. a "character driven" story, there is just story. My 2 cents ... now let the feathers fly.

Joe Bousquin

Jeff, thanks for those 2 cents... :) I'm thinking I may have just gotten a preview of Anatomy of a Premise Line, which I downloaded to my Kindle last night. I'm looking forward to digging into it this weekend! (DISCLAIMER: No feathers were harmed in writing this post.)

Jeff Lyons

HA! Shhhhh... don't tell anybody but you're right :) (much appreciate the download.. .pls leave a review if you like it!!!)

Jon McCary

I agree with Jeff. Though usually people do start in one place or another.

Joe Bousquin

Hey Jon, I've got a background in journalism, so I've always been very "story" oriented, and I've got to say, it's been a hard habit to break. I'm just now having a breakthrough on character, thanks in no small part to William C. Martell's Blue Book on Creating Strong Protagonists. It was recommended in the discussion following Courtney's post about the best screenwriting books last week, which in turn inspired me to ask this question here!

Eric Christopherson

I'm not sure you can entirely separate plot from character. Sometimes character drives plot and sometimes plot drives character just as sometimes we are the masters of our own destiny and sometimes destiny masters us.

Joe Bousquin

Hi Eric, Great point. Robert McKee makes an argument in his STORY class that the question is moot, that character flows from story, and story from character. Not to be (too) crass and commercial, but I wonder how it translates at the box office. Do audiences go to movies to see character? Or are they attracted by the story? I saw a stat recently that the most requested genre of movies by producers is thrillers, which are presumably story-first creations. I wonder, from a marketability standpoint, whether thrillers or character-driven dramas are an easier sell from a production standpoint. Cue the aforementioned feathers.

Jeff Lyons

The way it translates at the box office is "situations." :) Most commercial movies aren't stories, they are situations, i.e., what Eric was describing "sometimes destiny masters us." A lot of commercial fiction as well. Not bad or wrong, just not stories. I wrote a whole blog post here a while back on S32 about stories vs. situations. You might find that interesting :

Dan MaxXx

Chicken or egg marketing. Nobody knows. People with 7-figure salary Studio jobs throw darts at their production boards or ask 6-year old Kids. Last month at the Box Office, Tyler Perry beat the Grand Slam of Hollywood's top paid Actors: Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck, Johnny Depp. Robert McKee is a great teacher but he is not running a Studio or making $1bil+ franchise movies.

Jeff Lyons

Dan--- you are 100% right my friend... darts and all.

Joe Bousquin

Thanks, guys, great stuff. And Jeff, that blog post is pure gold -- thanks so much for sharing, highly recommended to folks who haven't read it yet. I'm continually blown away by the level of the dialogue here on Stage 32 since I joined just a few short weeks ago. Thanks to everyone for your lucid, thoughtful posts!

Christopher Binder

Character is plot.

Tivoli Silas

I've always struggled with this personally, especially since they are both so important. Overall, I always focus on story and premise first and then I figure out the characters. I've tried writing exercises where I have to create a character out of the blue, but I find that I struggle without a premise and an idea of what the story is and the characters feel bland to me. I guess I really take to heart the Pixar model of "Story is King." I've just found that that's my creative process.

Ted Westby

I'm with Chris on this one... and yet. Recently, and please don't ask why, I revisited 'Speed' for the first time since it came out in '94. On the commentary Graham Yost plainly states his "characters" are paper thin. Why? Because it was a concept film. Who the hell needs characters in a concept film? Unless of course you're writing something people should remember for things other than jumping a bus across an unfinished piece of concrete.

Jorge J Prieto

Loved this article. Thanks for sharing it, JOE.

Joe Bousquin

Tivoli, Ditto that for me. I've been writing for 20+ years, mostly as a journalist, and sitting down and writing a character profile, with traits, fears, character arc, etc., simply leaves me at a loss for words. It's not a feeling I'm accustomed to. But sit me down with just a smidge of an idea for a story, and my mind jumps right in. So, I'm trying to exercise that character muscle more to catch up to the story side of my brain.

Desiree Middleton

The characters I write feel real real to me, so I write from their world.

Joe Bousquin

Hey Desiree, As William C. Martell says in this Protagonist blue book, that's because your characters are you! It has been a real breakthrough for me reading his views on what brings our characters to life -- the real emotion from actual experiences we've had in our own lives. Thinking about how I can relate to my characters based on what I've actually lived myself has been a big help for me.

Boomer Murrhee

Great thread, Joe. I also agree with William. Emotions from actual life experiences is what we draw from. The more real, the more in-depth, the more believable. I enjoyed the article and the posts.

Joe Bousquin

Hey Boomer! Great, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I've got to say, thinking about character in this way over the last week has really given me a lot of revelation into my scripts that I didn't see before. These are all great tips! Also, I must extend a belated thanks -- it was our profile on ScreenwritingU that led me here to Stage 32. I've been having a great time with it since. So thanks!

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