Inevitably, when discussing cinematic narratives, stories always end up being lumped into two fuzzy, hard to define groups. You always hear about a narrative as being either “plot-driven” or “character driven.” But, these two labels have never been much help in defining the stories considered to be in each group.
The first reason for this is because neither of these groups has ever been clearly or conclusively defined. What exactly makes a story “character-driven” rather than “plot-driven”? It is mostly open to subjective interpretation. To what degree is a story driven more or less by its characters to qualify it for one category or the other?
The second flaw comes from the fact that both groups are erroneously named. EVERY cinematic story is driven by plot. And at the same time, EVERY cinematic story is also driven by character. In all but the most experimental of art films there is some sort of plot that drives the story. As long as at some point in the narrative one event is caused by the actions of a previous event, a plot is at play. Conversely, every film except the most abstract contains characters. It is the characters who perform the actions that create the plot. Plot and character are intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. In every cinematic narrative, both are driving the story.
These two groups can be better defined by looking at their story structures from a different perspective. This approach may seem strange at first glance, but with some thought it reveals itself as simple, logical, and far easier to judge than the old model. To define a story type, look at the script and ask,
Does this story have a god?
Now, I don't mean god in the traditional religious sense. This has nothing to do with any existing theology in the outside world. It has nothing to do with you, the writer's, personal beliefs nor the personal beliefs of your characters. I mean it purely as a metaphor applied to narrative structure. What type of philosophical structure is at play in your story's universe?
Philosophical thought on human existence breaks down into two broad categories. In one, the theist philosophies, outcomes in life are to some degree decided by forces outside of the individual's control (a benevolent/malevolent god, fate, evil spirits...). In the other, the nontheist human-centered philosophies, man in in complete control of his own fate and his success or failure in life are completely based on his personal choices and actions. To put this into screenwriting terms, look at your script and ask, where does the conflict that drives the story come from? Does it originate from sources outside of the protagonist? Or is the conflict created by the protagonist themselves? We are talking about the MAIN CONFLICT here - the conflict that kicks in at the inciting incident and disrupts the status quo. Is the protagonist FORCED into action? Or does he/she do it by choice?
It turns out upon close inspection that all cinematic stories can break down into these groups: Theist or Humanist. Humanity's ultimate philosophical argument continues to be battled out in the way we tell our stories.
Category #1: YOU ARE A CRUEL GOD!
When people say a script is “plot-driven,” what they really mean is it is driven by antagonism. Forces outside of the protagonist's control force the protagonist to act. And you, the “storyteller-god”, are the malevolent source of all antagonism.
Your story is your own personal universe. You created it. You are its god. Whatever you will to happen, can happen. And your protagonist is forced to deal with it. Most action movies, comedies, and genre films are “theist-driven” films.
However, if you wish to create a dramatic, exciting, emotionally compelling story, you cannot be a kind god. You must be a CRUEL god. It must be your job to rain down as much trouble, pain, and hardship on your protagonist that your story's universe can allow.
Think of your protagonist as a puny mortal who must be judged. It is your divine duty to test your protagonist's true character with a level of bullshit so ridiculous that they must fight, and fight, and fight, until they finally prove themselves worthy of success, happiness, and a happy ending. You are the god of Odysseus, flinging him with wind and waves from one life-threatening situation to another, punishing him for past sins and making him prove himself worthy of returning home. You are the God of Job, smiting him with misery after misery in the ultimate test of Job's true character.
Coincidence seems to play a big part in these types of stories. A lot of things just seem to happen by pure luck. Sometimes good luck, but usually bad. But of course, they aren't really coincidences. They are all orchestrated by the story's creator and backed up in a plausible way so that they happen to logically intersect the hero's path at the right time and place.
To illustrate, let's take a look at a section of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Indy's universe has a god. And his god HATES him! Indy's goal is to find and retrieve the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. By the film's midpoint, Indy has managed to overcome the hoards of Nazis, thugs, and sword-wielding Arabs that have been put in his way through skill and perseverance, and has finally located the Well of Souls, the Ark's keeping place.
So, all Indy and his ally Sallah have to do is go into the Well at night and get the Ark. Easy, right? NO! The Well just happens to be filled with SNAKES! Thousands and thousands of poisonous snakes – the one thing Indy hates most in the world. Now, the critical viewer has to wonder as they watch this scene, just how in the world would thousands of snakes, from dozens of species from around the world, happen to be living in this sealed-off chamber in the middle of the lifeless desert, with no source of food, and no source of water? They logically couldn't be. The only real reason is that Indy's storyteller-god has put them there just to make Indy's life SUCK as much as possible!
Okay, Indy overcomes the chamber of snakes and finds the Ark. All he has to do is get the Ark out and get it back home. Easy, right? But, who just happens to be waiting outside? The antagonist Belloq and an army of Nazis. We don't really know how they got there. They are just there. Indy's storyteller-god has screwed him again. The Nazis take the Ark, and seal him and Marion inside. Indy must now overcome yet another ridiculously difficult test of his character. But Indy once again proves his worth and finds a way to escape.
Okay, Indy and Marion are out. They can just steal a plane and escape. Easy, right? Wrong. The biggest, meanest German in the whole camp just happens to see them and starts pummeling the crap out of Indy. And guess who decided to put him there? That's right. Indy's cruel god. But still, the storyteller-god doesn't think this is enough for Indy. So, he makes the pilot of the plane just happen fall dead on the controls, the hatch just happens to trap Marion inside, and the plane's wing just happens to scrape against a fuel truck, spilling an ocean of gasoline that threatens to explode any minute.
Indiana Jones manages to become a heroic character on the level of a modern myth or legend, not simply because he accomplishes his goal- but because he EARNS it by overcoming test after impossible test, proving his place in a pantheon of immortal heroes.
To make this type of story work, the writer must at all times look at the situation their puny mortal protagonist is in, desperately struggling to reach his or her goal, and think, “Okay, my protagonist seems to be having a hard time, *evil laugh* now, how can I make it WORSE?!” Once you have given you protagonist this new challenge, come up with a way for them to prove his or her worth by overcoming it. But, you can't let your protagonist have any time to rest. They can't get cocky just yet. Even fresher hell needs to be right on his heels. And the next test of character needs to be even more impossible than the last. If your protagonist is not at some point, looking up to the sky and and wondering “Why, god, WHY?” you haven't done enough yet!
But, the storyteller-god doesn't always have to be all bad. Every once in a while you can throw your characters a bone. On a number of occasions Indy is trapped in a situation that seems impossible, only to be given a little help. At one point in Cairo, the drunken Indy has been found by Nazis and taken to Belloq. Surrounded by gun-wielding Arabs, Indy is backed into a corner and about to fight to his death- only to be saved at the last moment by an mob of children and the revelation that the Arabs are in fact US Marines. When Indy is trapped in the Well of the Souls, all seems lost. If the storyteller-god had not chosen to give him a hint by showing the snakes entering through holes in the walls, he would have never escaped.
Thus, here is the role of the writer in these antagonism-driven stories. The writer is a god, always making things harder when they are too easy, and to giving a helping hand when things become too hard.
Category #2: All is Chaos, Hope is an illusion
When one calls a film “character-driven,” that does NOT mean it is supposed to have a thin plot, filled with dialogue, or as some think of it, a dull film filled with “feelings.” Character-driven means exactly that. The actions of the character are what solely pushes the film forward. There is no outside force making them act, the character IS the force that creates change. These films are “Humanist” films.
God does not exist in this world. The whole of existence is a single solitary human struggling day in and day out for survival in a cold, uncaring universe of randomness, filled with millions of others humans, all desperately fighting their own existence. Nothing is going to step in and help them. If they want success and happiness, they are going to have to earn it themselves with their blood, sweat, and tears.
I am a great admirer of French author/philosopher Albert Camus. Camus's view of life was, in a nutshell, that of a constant conflict between the natural human desire for order, meaning, and control , and the cruel reality that the world is in fact random, chaotic, and uncontrollable. Human misery comes when a person takes action with a certain positive expectation hoping that the world will turn out the way they want it to, and then having that expectation smashed by the true nature reality that refuses to conform – or even care about - their hopes and expectations. (Those of you who are familiar with Robert McKee's approach to plotting in his book Story will see some clear parallels.) Camus used the mythical figure of Sisyphus (pictured) as the metaphor of existence. We are each forced to constantly push ahead against an immense uncaring burden that will never be lifted. Happiness can only be achieved by first recognizing recognizing the illusions of the reality we live in, and then working hard to create some personal freedom and achievement within its limits.
The protagonists of these films are Sisyphean ones. Unlike the protagonists of the theist films who lead pretty normal lives until an outside event forces them into action, these characters are unhappy from the start. Their life IS the motivating action. Something is making them unhappy and one day something motivates them to start the long, hard task of pushing their boulder uphill.
In theist films, conflict occurs when the problem attacks the protagonist. In the humanist, the PROTAGONIST attacks the PROBLEM. Furthermore, in films of the former category, conflict comes from forces of antagonism that are actively trying to stop the protagonist (antagonists and the like). In the latter category the conflict often comes either from forces that are either indifferent about the plight of the protagonist, or they may come from the protagonist's erroneous expectations or a lack of understanding about themselves and their world (the bank forecloses on the protagonist's house for lack of payment, a father who has grown apart from his daughter due to past failures, a character who can't find true love because they are ignorant of the faults that hold them back.)
Theist story types usually lean towards fantasy, adventure, and escapism. Because humanist story types seem to mirror daily life with more authenticity, so you will find this type of structure mostly in straight drama, biopics, stories that deal with social problems or injustice, naturalistic dramatic comedies such as Sideways, and even in rise-and-fall type stories that are driven by the protagonist's ambition, such as Scarface and Wall Street. This type of structure is also highly at play in any film that contain troubled protagonists with strong inner conflicts, stories where the source of the protagonist's problems do not come from the outside world, but from their own emotional and social flaws, such as Five Easy Pieces or Taxi Driver.
For a good example, let's look at Erin Brokovich. The title character is down and out from the beginning of the story. She's a single mother of three, has no money, and has just unfairly lost a lawsuit over an accident that has left her broke. The world is indifferent and unkind to Erin. Through her own actions, she persuades her lawyer to give her a filing job. The inciting incident occurs when Erin stumbles upon some documents that don't make sense belonging to a corporate negligence case and decides to investigate further. Note that SHE has chosen the conflict. The conflict did not choose her. If she had chosen not to pursue the discrepancies in the case, the status quo of her life would most likely have continued unaffected.
The story developments that follow are solely caused by voluntary actions by Erin, pushing forward against the conflict out of a desire to put wrong things right and create some sort of order in the uncaring universe. Erin encounters all the conflicts that a cold, uncaring universe can give: indifference, greed, corruption, poverty & desperation. The more she tries, the crueler she finds reality to be. Her actions work to cause new conflicts at home, as her children and boyfriend become unhappy with the time she is spending on the case. She succeeds not through any divine help or coincidence, but by pluck and perseverance, gaining happiness from a small victory in a cold world.
To develop these types of stories, the writer must pay attention to their protagonist's desire and their expectations on how to achieve it, and then constantly look for plausible, logical ways for those expectations to fail. Then, have him or her pick up the pieces, get back up and continue pushing forward in another direction. Or, if your protagonist is a the deeply flawed type who always creates his own conflicts by being his own worst enemy, constantly think of how the errors in his ways of thinking/behaving can keep rising up and destroying his attempts at his goal.
If coincidence should occur in these stories, if the character should be in the right place at the right time and some benevolent or ill-meaning force should seem to present them with something, it would come off as phony and inconsistent. Whereas in theist films it would feel completely plausible, when an audience encounters coincidence in these types of stories, the audience has a hard time accepting it, and will declare that the falseness of Hollywood is shining through. For instance, The Pursuit of Happyness for the most part is a humanist narrative, but at a certain point coincidence occurs. Will Smith's character sells portable bone scanners, worth about $300 in the era the film takes place. While running from an unpaid cab fare, Smith loses the scanner at the subway. A crazy homeless man whom Smith encountered in the movie's setup who thinks the scanner is a time machine just happens to be there and takes it. Later in the film, at a point where Smith is the most hard-up for money, he happens to encounter the homeless man again and takes the scanner back. This coincidence becomes the weak spot of plausibility in an otherwise realist non-theist film. It is as if the film's god suddenly appears from nowhere to lend him a hand.
Humanist-structured films are harder to pull off than theist-films. They demand a lot more out of both writer and audience, which is one reason they are rarely as commercially successful as films of the theist category. One could even argue that theist-structured films are so enjoyable because they give that illusion of an ordered, controlled universe we all desire, rather than revealing something closer to reality has the humanist films do. However, when done well, these films have the potential to be masterpieces. They touch far closer to the audience's daily lives and experiences, allowing more emotional resonance and the ability to speak far more truth than a hundred Indiana Joneses.