“Which story feature do you value the most: plot, character, or setting?”
I was asked this question once in a creative writing course, and for me, the ranking was instant.
Plot is difficult to maintain and more times than not ends up being inconsistent.
Setting, when capitalized on for details, can play an immense part towards establishing realism.
Characters are what really count—anything else is expendable but you can’t slack on layered characters. They’re what you’ll remember years from now, long after the specific twist and turns are forgotten. They are the reason you’ll continue following even the most questionable story arcs, because you care about what happens to them.
For me, television is the creative medium that most shares these sensibilities. Certainly it would be an overgeneralization to claim every program fits such a mold (nor should setting or plot be undervalued), but overall the TV show format exhibits a greater natural agreeableness for character development. It’s an advantage cultivated from the knowledge that, given a renewal at season’s end, you will be following these same people over years of episodes. That means life changes, transformations, triumphs, breakdowns, and everything in between. Show writers can take their time divvying out information because they have more time. Characters can grow into actual full-fledged human beings with that level of long-term commitment to their backgrounds. Nuance is required when you hypothetically have unlimited airtime at your disposal, to talk about these same individuals’ lives.
Yet where television has risen in my esteem, movies have gotten spoiled. That is to say, I’ve become less able to accommodate to the speed required in cinema to tell a story. Narrative devices like time lapses or flashbacks occasionally help get around length limitations, but such loopholes can merely be stretched so far. There’s still only an average two hours to get from point A to point B, making it either impossible or at least very difficult to pull off the same level of character development achieved on television.
There also can be a greater pressure to cave to narrative cheats in film, like stock personalities or overly-spelled-out interior monologues that don’t actually get put into words in real life. TV has their explication scenes, too, but in a movie they can be more noticeable due to the rush (and necessity) of story progression. Transformations have to happen now or never, because once those credits start rolling, it’s over. Film endings have greater permanence. Excepting the occasional sequel or trilogy, these characters aren’t coming back on screen again.
But sometimes, a movie comes around that makes you step back in awe and be reminded of what can be accomplished in cinema—that any doubt in films’ ability to create complex characters is ill-founded. In refusing to handhold the audience, first time director, Yann Demange’s insular war film ’71 manages to create an entire cast of memorable characters through solely their short interactions with the movie’s lead. Continue reading