For whatever reason, TPM wasn’t all that keen on watching, but I talked him into it. Within the first few minutes as we followed the adventures of the Mars explorers, I was hooked, exclaiming things like, “This is fascinating!” Meanwhile TPM was watching half-heartedly and playing solitaire on his tablet.
When the crisis stranded poor Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on this uninhabitable piece of rock, his crewmates thinking him dead, I was curled up on the couch in a fetal position, biting my fingernails, and TPM had started to take interest.
According to the movie’s website, the film lasts 143 minutes, although I was completely unaware of the passage of time. In fact, I only paused the video once for a break...which is significant since I’m a serial pause-for-breaker. Somewhere in there TPM put down his tablet, and when the final credits rolled, he said, “That was excellent.” High praise from TPM. Even more striking, for once he had no comments on what he would have done differently, plot-wise, no suggestions for improvement.
It got me thinking about plot vs. character and which drives a story. (It also convinced me to put the book on my reading list!)
As a reader, I generally tend toward the character end of the see-saw. I read to find out what’s going on with the characters and their relationships, and how they react to the action around them. To me the pickles they get themselves into are sort of secondary, or interchangeable. Substitute car chase for martial arts butt-kicking—that type of thing. Or in a romance novel, substitute discovery of the hero’s past mistake for discovery of something he did two days ago. So for me, the story isn't so much about what the characters do as how those plot turns affect them.
But with The Martian, I was completely absorbed in the plot, while almost ignoring the character. Not that Mark Watney wasn't likeable, just that the situation was so compelling he was almost secondary.
Certainly any of the astronauts on the mission would have done what they could to save themselves. Probably, since they are all scientists of one form or another, each would have approached the situation methodically, forming a hypothesis for each problem, then testing the theories. At least in the beginning. But how many would have persevered through the seeming insurmountable challenges, right up to the final moments, as Watney did? (I’m trying to NOT give away the ending for any who haven’t seen the movie or read the book.)
Finally I decided it was that component of his character (calm, steadfast perseverance in the face a situation that would have reduced most of us to a wailing pile of self-pity) that drove the plot, and ultimately the story. So for me, it’s a character story after all.
Then I got to thinking about all my favorite books and movies and tried to figure if it was plot or character, and again, I chose character.
Gone with the Wind, for example: Aside from this Yankee's curiosity of the setting in the ante-Bellum South, it was the characters and their relationship that intrigued me more than the story of war.
Or Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale: Two sisters in German-occupied Paris (WWII) and how they deal with the horrors of war. While the situation and setting are compelling (emotional and heartbreaking), how the sisters react is what tells the story.
What about romance?
Since the ending of a romance novel is, to a great extent, predetermined by the genre, romance writers have to be pretty clever and skilled to create suspense, either plot-wise or relationship-wise, to keep readers turning the pages. But again, that’s why I read: To find out how the characters react to those plot twists and how they achieve their HEA/HFN ending.
What do you think? Plot or character—which drives the story for you?
Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil and the power of love. Learn more at her website, or visit her on Facebook.