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Plot and character: choosing the right man (or woman) for the job

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plot and character screenwriting article

One of my favorite things about airplane travel is the perfect excuse it provides for bingeing two or three movies in a row. Especially if they’re movies I might not ordinarily watch, or if I can compare and contrast them to think about screenwriting.

Flying back from London yesterday, my lineup included The Upside (starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart) and Second Act (starring Jennifer Lopez). Two movies about a new job for an unlikely candidate. Two movies with something to teach us about designing plot and character to complement each other (and what happens when the writer doesn’t).

What do we know about plot and character development?

In any good story, plot and character development are intertwined. Plot events act on a character and force change. The changing character makes choices that drive plot direction.

We also know that good stories are cohesive. There’s connective tissue and rhyming and echoing so that it feels like each piece belongs to the whole. And all the elements weave together into one big picture that is greater than the sum of its parts.

When plot and character are designed to intertwine effectively, it makes the story feel more meaningful because we can see how those elements are working on each other and effecting change.

Intertwine plot and character from the start

When you’re breaking and outlining a story, you can (and should) consider how plot events affect character development and vice versa. But don’t wait until you’re that far along in the process.

Even when you’re in the broad strokes of early pre-writing, it’s a good idea to think about how plot and character go together. Design them to work together in a specific, interconnected way so you can draw on that relationship throughout the story.

Let’s look at today’s examples to see what that relationship looks like. (Spoilers ahead.)

Example 1: plot and character that get on like a house on fire

In The Upside, Kevin Hart plays a guy who only looks out for himself. The plot puts him in a situation where he must look after Bryan Cranston’s character, who hires Kevin as a sort of home health aide.

So we can see how this plot specifically challenges this character. This character is specifically designed to be the best (or worst) person to endure this plot. The relationship between the two elements is clear and easy to see.

There’s plenty of conflict to mine from the relationship between those two elements alone. And when Kevin changes and grows into a person who genuinely cares for others, we’ve seen the hard-fought process by which it happened so it feels meaningful and touches our emotions.

Example 2: plot and character that aren’t on the same page

In Second Act, Jennifer Lopez plays a woman who is street smart but has no formal education. She lucks into an interview for a fancy executive job, lands the job but has lied about her credentials, and then learns the real reason she was brought in was to secretly introduce her to the daughter she gave up for adoption some 20 years earlier. In the end, JLo’s character sees she deserves love, is a smart businesswoman, and she can be honest about everything to everyone.

Now, how does this specific plot challenge this specific character?

There are hints of some workable ideas there – she doesn’t see herself as good enough so she lies, but over the course of doing the job and getting to know her biological daughter JLo’s character comes to see her true self as a-okay.

But that’s not really what happens in the movie. The protagonist’s main characteristic isn’t really that she’s dishonest, so when she learns to be honest it rings false. On the other hand, the plot events surrounding her new job don’t really address her feelings of unworthiness.

There are too many ideas in play so the story feels scattered, and the plot and character aren’t designed to intertwine well. In the execution, it’s not totally clear how or why these plot events cause the character to change the way she does and ultimately, there’s zero emotional impact.

Strike a match between plot and character

So when you’re creating the building blocks of your story make sure to design a logical match between plot and character. It’ll give you a solid foundation to build your story on, and save you from slapping band-aids on later.

If you have an idea of the plot, think of what types of characters would be the best/worst to face that challenge. If you’re starting with character, think about their dominant traits and what kind of journey would challenge them to grow in a meaningful way.

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