How to Tell if Your Story Has Too Much Plot, Not Enough Character
Can a story have too much plot?
It might surprise you (especially if you’re a regular reader of the site), but the answer is absolutely, yes.
Implicit in the question of too much plot is the idea that a story should have moreof something else. Usually that something else is character. This is where we find the well-entrenched battleground of “plot vs. character.”
It’s unfortunate these two crucial ingredients of story are often presented as exclusive opposites—bitter rivals who can barely stand each other—because the discussion at the heart of “plot vs. character” is much more nuanced. As you probably know if you’ve spent any time on the site, I dislike the whole structure of the “plot vs. character” discussion. Too often, it’s presented as a simplistic either/or paradigm that demands a clear winner: either plot or character must be the undisputed Monarch of Story.
Ultimately, what that argument is really about is a style of writing. Those arguing for more plot are usually arguing for more conventional, often genre fiction; those arguing for more character are usually arguing for more interior-oriented, often experimental, literary fiction. That’s a discussion for another day, but suffice it that both types of story almost inevitably require both plot and character.
As we’ve discussed in many previous posts, plot and character are less competitors and more symbiotes. Once you understand the self-generating cycle of “character creating plot creating character creating plot,” you understand that the two work optimally when they balance each other within the overall storyform.
But what happens when something is out of balance? What happens when your story has too much character? Or too much plot?
Can Your Story Have Too Much Character Development?
It’s actually really hard to do too much character. Usually, if there’s “too much” character development in a story, it’s a sign not so much of character problems as it is self-indulgent writing in which the author counted too much on readers’ loving the characters enough to watch them do… nothing.
When characters are vibrant and well-drawn, they enter that beautiful cycle of creating plot. It’s tough to write good characters without alsowriting plot of some sort. Even in more literary-leaning books, such as Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which are obviously preoccupied with character, the characters are vibrant enough to create a forward-moving plot out of even mundaneness such as farm chores.
(It’s true that even more “literary” stories may spend almost their entire word count within the characters’ head, with little happening in the exterior world. Plot is admittedly thin in these stories. The authors have intentionally created a “story” that is more about the descriptive detail or philosophical thesis. Sometimes you’ll also see these devices woven into a larger, more obvious plot, as in some of Thomas Mann’s or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s brooding asides.)
Pretty much the only time you’ll run into problems with a story having “too much character” is if those characters are either failing to generate plot and/or aren’t entertaining enough to carry the story past scenes that are lacking in external conflict or momentum.
What About Too Much Plot?
Much more common than “too much character development” is the complaint of a story that has “too much plot.”
Poor maligned plot. It’s always getting a bad rap:
“That book was too plot heavy.”
“Too much plot vs. character!”
“That movie was nothing but stuff blowing up.”
But as it turns out none of these problems are about plot. Rather, the problem is “not enough character.”
“Too much plot” is almost always a sign the external conflict is operating on its own accord without being driven by dynamic characters. Stuff is happening, but the characters are just ciphers along for the ride. As a viewer or reader, I’m sure you can think of more than a few stories that fit the bill. They’re frustrating as all get-out. The plot might be great. If it’s a movie, the cast might be stellar. The theme might even be powerfully strong. But if the characters are just vapid automatons, the story feels empty.
5 Signs of Cardboard Characters
Recently, I watched several movies that checked all the above boxes. They could have been great. But they all stumbled and ended up just going through the motions, not because their plots were problematic but because the characters just weren’t there.
Today, we’re going to look specifically at Netflix’s recent army/heist flick Triple Frontier (along with The Red Sea Diving Resort and Amazon’s The Dressmaker) as a way of discovering what went wrong and how you can identify and rectify imbalances between plot and character in your own stories.
1. The Characters’ Personalities Don’t Inform the Plot
Why are your characters in your story? Why are these specific characters in this story? If there’s no reason why this specific character is important to this story, you know you’ve got a problem.
The surest symptom is an unmemorable character. Almost always this lack of memorability is really a lack of specificity. It points to the fact that this character—his personality, his choices, his actions—are so bland and generalized that the character could be switched right out for an alternate take.
You might also recognize the problem if you realize the character’s most important actions in the story could be undertaken just as easily by a different character. When this happens, you can be pretty sure you’ve got a character (or two) who’s nothing more than an interchangeable part—a Lego guy who just needs a new head.
For Example: Triple Frontier has the sweet double advantage of a simple plot and a simple cast—just five main players. But why five? Why these five? With the exception of Oscar Isaac’s protagonist, most of the other characters have little to no development. In particular, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal are immediately forgettable. One’s a boxer dumb enough to get his brains beat out every week; the other’s a pilot dumb enough to get caught running drugs. That’s pretty much the only specific contributions either make to the story.
The Red Sea Diving Resort suffers exactly the same problem. Its protagonist is sketched pretty well, but almost all the supporting characters exist in the story with no more than one defining characteristic—none of which impact the story. We’ve got tough judo chick, vain beach dude, and stone-cold assassin—but none of them are developed past their characteristic moments.
2. The Story Isn’t About These Characters
Do you know what your story is about? I mean do you really know what your story is about?
The easy answer is that stories are always about their characters. Events in a story exist only to develop character. Either specific characters generate specific events, or they react to events (generated by other characters) in specific ways. If not—if your story is peopled with characters so bland they could be replaced at a moment’s notice—then you end up with a story that ultimately doesn’t mean anything. This is true no matter how great the premise or the action may be.
For Example: In its very first scene, Triple Frontier tells us what it’s about: the negative effects of the warrior lifestyle. It opens with Charlie Hunnam’s character talking to a group of soldiers about how his stint in Special Forces made it difficult for him live without violence or in his post-Army life. This throughline is emphasized many times, culminating when [SPOILER] the team’s once-respected leader, played by Ben Affleck, murders a farmer and is then retributively killed himself [/SPOILER].
But these developments never play organically, mostly because Affleck’s character isn’t well-developed. His Corruption Arc plays out more like a crazy personality shift than it does an organic devolution as the result of his specific choices and actions within the story. Had the script allowed its characters’ development to generate the plot, rather than shoehorning their character twists into the plot beats, the story could easily have shifted into a compelling and thought-provoking thematic discussion.
3. The Characters Lack Concrete and Specific Motivations
Often, the root cause of cardboard characters is a lack of concrete and specific motivations. What a character does in the plot is often much less important than why she does it. Monumental events can end up feeling bland when we don’t understand what is personally at stake for characters. Even small everyday events take on new significance when we understand what motivates the character (think of Liesel’s reading in The Book Thief).
Even if a character’s motivations aren’t explored in depth, if they are at least indicated early in the story they will have the ability to inform the subtext. What might otherwise be a two-dimensional hero in an action flick can take on at least a semblance of depth (think of Jason Bourne’s deeply personal and existential motivations adding unspoken depth and meaning to even the straight-up-race-em-chase-em of the third installment Bourne Ultimatum).
For Example: Triple Frontier didn’t totally bomb on this one. Viewers are given to understand that all five of the main characters have agreed to the central heist because of their problems in their post-military lives. We are given at least the hint of a specific personal reason for each character, even though only Isaac’s and Affleck’s motivations end up being pertinent.
The Red Sea Diving Resort fares even worse in this regard. Only the protagonist, played by Chris Evans, is given a slight backstory with an explanation of his fanatical motivation for rescuing the Ethiopian refugees. His teammates aren’t afforded even that. They’re there because they’re there, and that’s that. Not only does this skip over what might have been a lot of compelling development, it also robs the film of the potential for much stronger interpersonal conflict than what we get from Alessandro Nivola’s two-dimensional doctor.
4. The First Half of the Story Spends More Time Setting Up the Plot Than It Does the Characters
If your story spends more time setting up the plot than it does the characters, that’s almost always going to point to a disparity.
Complicated plots are annoying. And boring.
Yep. You read right.
We don’t like stories because the plots are complicated. To begin with, complicated plots usually don’t work. (Think about it. There’s nothing simpler than a good whodunit.) But more than that, complicated plots take time away from what audiences really do enjoy—and that’s complex characters dealing with simple but difficult situations.
These situations often seem complicated, but they’re not. Good plots are as simple as presenting characters with a really difficult lose-lose (or win-win) choice. The mechanics of the choosing might be complicated, but the question itself is not.
When this happens, a ton of story space is freed up for—you guessed it—character development. Most of that development should happen upfront. If the characters aren’t the most compelling thing about your story, then chances are audiences won’t stick with it (or, best case, they stick with it but promptly forget about it).
For Example: Neither Triple Frontier nor Red Sea Diving Resort were terrible in this respect. But compare them to a classic action movie: Jurassic Park.
Jurassic Park balances plot and character just about perfectly. The entire first half of the story is spent on the characters and their reactions to the dilemma with which they’ve been presented (dinosaurs are back—is this a good thing or a very, very bad thing?). No action whatsoever happens until the Midpoint when the tropical storm unleashes the dinos. By then, the characters have been suitably developed so we care what happens to them and we understand why they make the choices they make. From the Midpoint on, the plot can roar furiously to the forefront without seeming like it’s “too much.”
5. Characters Are Specific But Exist Only as Shallow Stereotypes to Fulfill Plot Points
At this point, you might look at your cast and be relieved to discover all your characters have specific roles to play, they all have specific personalities and motivations, and none of their actions could be seamlessly handed over to another character.
But there’s one last problem to be aware of.
Sometimes characters check all the above boxes and yet still exist not to generate plot, but to serve it. Almost always, this character emerges as a stereotype of some sort (either a stereotyped character or a character whose development is forced to fit a formulaic plot). Two of the most common culprits are antagonists (who are bad just because they’re expected to be bad) and love interests (who fall in love with the protagonist just because they’re expected to fall in love). But even protagonists can fall into this pit when they’re heroic just because they’re expected to be heroic or they end up “winning” the conflict just because they’re expected to win.
Be wary of characters going through the motions. Make sure there is a solid and compelling reason for a character’s every action within the story. Just as importantly, make sure his arc is developed throughout the story. Whatever happens to him at the end must fulfill two requirements:
- It must be properly set up in the story’s beginning.
- It must resonate thematically in the story’s end.
For Example: Most of the characters in Triple Frontier and Red Sea Diving Resort are so one-dimensional they don’t even risk this problem. A better example is found in The Dressmaker. Characterization in this film is excellent until the Third Act when everything falls apart to little thematic purpose.
By far the weakest character throughout is the protagonist’s love interest, played by Liam Hemsworth. Throughout the story, he has little to do except fall in love with Kate Winslett and little reason to do so except… why not? (I have a feeling that might have been better executed in the novel, which I have not read.) But this doesn’t become blatantly problematic until the Third Plot Pointwhen [SPOILER] the character dies out of the blue—and the rest of the Third Act fails to make his death a plot-generating catalyst. Rather, what it feels like is that the love-interest character existed for no other reason than to shock both the protagonist and the audience with his death.[/SPOILER]
The holy grail of good storytelling is great characters in a great plot. Learning to recognize the proper balance of plot and character is sometimes easiest when you first learn to understand what an imbalance looks like. If you can spot and correct instances where your plot is operating without enough input from your characters, you’ll be well on your way to writing exceptional stories.