Friday, March 13, 2009

Character Driven Drama (now with LINKS!)


My latest discovery in the realm of story is Character-Driven Drama, a particular type of story that originates from the world of live theater.

In order to understand what it is, it helps to learn what it ISN'T.

Its antithesis is the Plot-Driven Narrative. (I call one drama and the other narrative because, to me, the word drama essentially MEANS character-driven). Plot-driven stories tend to be more structured.... all this 3-act, inciting incident, turning point, Aristotlean stuff that I've been studying. That's not to say all those things don't also apply to character-driven drama... they DO... but in a less obvious way. The structure tends to be more subliminal, giving precedence to the personalities that power the story and letting things flow forth in a more organic, holistic manner. The CDD (Character Driven Drama) tends to be focused on individuals -- a character portrait or a biography if you will, whereas the PDN (Plot Driven Narrative) is about a series of events. Writing a plot-driven narrative has the tendency to flatten characters by subjecting them to the twists and turns dictated by the carefully crafted story.

I've been discussing the subject with fellow Stopmoe and blogger Sven Bonnichsen, who is currently taking a playwriting course and digging into it much deeper than I am... Im basically just getting the benefit of his studies and doing a little additional research of my own. D G Goans introduced us to a great playwriting book by Laos Egri called The Art of Dramatic Writing, which has been the basis of my own studies thus far into the field. I won't bother to repeat anything Sven has said on his blog.... I'll just give my own thoughts, which are fairly subjective.

Since reading the Egri book I now have a much stronger idea of what's meant by "character driven" stories. I had heard the term before, but had only a vague notion of what it really meant. Basically it means all the action in the story derives directly from the personalities of the main characters, as opposed to stories that are about ideas or situations.

And suddenly I understand something that I was dimly aware of but couldn't put my finger on until now....

These days there are a lot of really powerful cable shows that are pushing the boundaries of what can be done in an ongoing television series, such as Saving Grace, Breaking Bad, Rescue Me, The Shield, etc. These shows are a complete paradigm shift from formulaic TV sitcoms like Giligan's Island, The Odd Couple, Family Matters, or Saved by the Bell.

All these cable shows I mentioned plus the rest I can think of (The Closer, Madmen, Nip/Tuck etc) are entirely character driven. There have been some character driven broadcast TV shows in the past... but not many. The only ones I can think of now would be Hill Street Blues and its spinoffs (such as NYPD Blue), All in the Family, M*A*S*H -- and those Joss Whedon classics Buffy and Angel.

Sitcoms, as the name implies, are situation driven. They always begin and end with essentially nothing having changed.... no-one dies, suffers any type of debilitating injury or illness, or has anything happen that changes their situation. The passengers on the SS Minnow never get off the island, no matter how close they come at times. Characters in a sitcom are pretty simple and almost formulaic.... not complex 3 dimensional individuals.

In a character-driven drama all the motive power derives from the personalities of the main characters. Often shows (or movies) of this nature seem formless, drifting -- because the structure (while usually there) is to some extent sublimated to the ebb and flow of the combat between the protagonist and antagonist, or just the protag going up against the world at large. How many shows were taken on a dizzying ride with Andy Sipowicz at the wheel, careening dangerously through the turmoils of his life?

The protagonist of a character-driven story is a deeply flawed person. Think about the main character in any of the cable shows I mentioned above.... these people all have serious issues!! At times the issues threaten to destroy them or the people around them. And in today's dark, edgy shows, sometimes it actually happens.... people suffer devastating losses and setbacks that you'd never see on prime time television.

Protags in character driven drama are also people who just won't let things be. They're always pushing... driving, striving to get what they want. They're not people who "don't rock the boat"... they're willing and quite ready to blow the boat right out of the water. They're what you would call driven people.... powered by their inner obsessions or compulsions. They're always pushing the issue. But their antags are the same way.... pushing back against them just as hard. When they meet, its time to duck for cover.... these are the alphas staking out the same territory and neither one is about to back down.

It's this kind of conflict that propels the character-driven drama. Things don't happen TO these people, they go out and happen to things -- and to each other.

I know quite a few people in real life that'd I'd call "Character Driven". These tend to be people with strong opinions about everything.... they have no neutral ground. You can be talking about the weather and they'll run the full emotional gamut -- they tend to push and probe to test you -- see if they can draw you out and get some fight out of you. And make no mistake, they love to fight!! They get bored when there's nothing to challenge them, and there's nothing they hate more than boredom. They tend to be people you either love or hate.... they get a strong reaction either way. You might admire them at times and at other times they annoy you or worse. They're AGGRESSIVE. Not passive.

This is hardly a complete rendering of what makes a character-driven drama, but it's all I got right now, so I thought I'd just plop it down here in my online notebook in case I want to look at it later. And you're welcome to peek in too if you want.

Oh, and here are some links:

Character-Driven or Action-Driven? @ Writer's Store

How to write the character driven novel @

A lighthearted peek at Character Driven Plotting by Valerie Comer

The Basics of Screenwriting Includes many of Egri's Dramatic concepts

'Breaking Bad' and Character-Driven TV @ The Harvard Crimson

Raising the Marketability of a Character-Driven Story also about 'finding your hook'

Let characters reveal themselves @

Six Simple Questions @

** I've come to the sudden realization that some of my favorite books are character driven, such as Moby Dick, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series by Fritz Lieber, and the stories of Gene Wolf. These are also the ones I'd characterize as Poetic Fiction (as per an earlier post).


Shelley Noble said...

I think it's cultural fashion. It goes through phases like the moon.

Sven Bonnichsen said...

"Basically it means all the action in the story derives directly from the personalities of the main characters, as opposed to stories that are about ideas or situations." ...Nicely said!

I'm going to be chewing on this one for a while.

They key is that the ACTION derives from the personalities. Most of the stuff I've read about character-heavy fiction seems to be missing much action. But certainly it seems like deriving plots *from* the characters personalities ought to be a winning strategy...?


people in gorillasuits said...

Somebody tipping on your shoulder, while you are staring straight ahead and straight ahead and still straight ahead and nothing than straight ahead for quite a long time - until this person whispers in your ear: "Are you aware, that there is a horizon behind you too ?"

Thanks Strider, you gave me a massive tip onto the sholuder about directions. I will take the weekend to tart estimating, how broad the new horizon is. I knew, that there must be something else. And while turning 180°, I might even get a glimpse of the borderlines between them two.
One last thing: Whilst riding into the horizon (grammar ?), you might recognize very soon, that this one broadens and renewes itself with every step.
This posting was exactly what I needed (but without knowing what I might schould look for). Thanks again.

Darkstrider said...

You're right Michael, there's a lot more unexplored territory in Storyworld, lying all around us.

So far we've explored the classical Aristotlian technique, which is by far the most well-documented approach, with hundreds of screenwriting books devoted to its every aspect -- plus I delved into the territory of Poetic Film and Poetic Narrative, and now Character Driven Drama.

I know there's more.... the globe is still splotched with dark areas.

Especially in the realm of the short animated film. I intend to turn my searchlight that way quite soon... hope you'll join me in the exploration!

UbaTuber said...

So you may have read a month or so ago on my blog, that we finally have cable (yay me!) and I was able to catch an ep of Breaking Bad last am definitely hooked, after just one ep...I loved Bryan Cranston on "Malcolm", thought he was hysterical, which makes his turn here even more tragically effective (affective?)....I'll be watching every Sun night now...haven't seen Grace yet but I mean to....we are mostly hooked on the food network :) I dont know if youve been watching Dollhouse or not but last nights ep was awesome, you can catch it on far hasnt been a terrific show but I have faith in Joss Whedon...

Darkstrider said...

Cool... glad to hear you like the show! You really should see it from the beginning.... I read on Bill Johnson's site (A Story is a Promise) recently that he tried to get in on both Buffy and Angel somewhere midstream and couldn't really follow because they're both such character-driven shows. So he bought the entire series of each on DVD and watched form the beginning, then he could see the characters grow and develop and the lengthy storylines take shape.

Breaking Bad is the same way, though I;m sure it's riveting even without knowing the whole story. There's so much tension (something missing from so many films and shows these days) and so much great foreshadowing and symbolism, plus BC's incredibly intense acting and the music.... I swear that show has the best opening title credits sequence ever created!!!

Saving Grace is good, but nowhere near the level of Breaking. Grace is a great character, but somehow I get lost in the show.... often the direction isn't clear (could be because I find it hard sometimes to tell what she's saying the way she mumbles out of the side of her mouth?). But Im hooked just for Grace and Earl the angel. And I love the dust-covered black Porsche she drives too!!