What’s more important? Character or plot? It depends on what type of story you’re writing, but generally, plot should be subservient to character.
Rod Serling was one of the most popular playwrights during the golden age of television. He wrote two popular teleplays called “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” which garnered him tremendous acclaim. After tiring of network meddling into his plays, he created “The Twilight Zone” series where he could hide social commentary within the disguise of science fiction and fantasy, thereby sneaking sensitive subjects past the network censors.
After the network cancelled “The Twilight Zone” after several years and multiple Emmy awards, Rod Serling later went on to create a similar anthology series that relied more on horror and the supernatural called “Night Gallery.” Although “Night Gallery” was similar to “The Twilight Zone,” it’s generally considered inferior. Here’s why.
Watch most Twilight Zone episodes and you’ll see that Rod Serling was a playwright so therefore he focused on drama. They didn’t have the realm of special effects available at the time, so the Twilight Zone had to rely on creativity and character interaction rather than exploding helicopters or meaningless gun battles. In other words, the Twilight Zone stories were more character-driven. Once you cared about a character, you were willing to follow that character to see what might happen.
On the other hand, Rod Serling fought the network over “Night Gallery.” The networks wanted more action and mindless monsters and spooks. In other words, Night Gallery focused more on gimmicks and trick endings without letting you care much about the characters. The characters were simply pawns to be pushed around the story to get through the plot.
In the world of movies, plot-driven stories are what James Bond, Indiana Jones, and the later Star Wars movies were all about. They simply presented cardboard characters and put them through one outrageous action sequence after another to keep your interest. Action for the sake of action is like cotton candy for the mind. It looks good and seems exciting when you watch it, but it’s ultimately empty at the end.
In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we actually care about Indiana Jones as a person. In “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull,” Indiana Jones is just a caricature who goes from one action sequence to another without any character development whatsoever.
Character-driven stories are really what provides substance to a film. Think of great movies like “Citizen Kane, “ “Pulp Fiction,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” or “The Shawshank Redemption.” In those movies, we care about the characters and all the special effects and action is secondary to the character’s development and growth.
So the answer is clear. If you want to make a great movie, make your story about characters. If you just want to make a B-movie, then focus on plot. You can still be successful at plot-driven stories such as horror films, but if you truly want to aspire to be a great story teller, you have no choice but to focus on character.