Story Vs. Characters

In 1996, I saw a movie that changed my life. The movie was Independence Day, featuring Bill Pullman and Will Smith.

The part that changed my life was this: Stories revolve around the characters who live to tell them.

I remember thinking, as I left the theater, how incredible it was that with a body count as high as the movie had, none of the important characters were killed. If a character died, it was intentional, sacrificial. With lasers and bullets flying everywhere, you might have thought that SOMEONE would have been killed unintentionally, but no.

Stories are told by the living. Why would the script writer tell the story of a man who accidently died in a car accident? That would make for one sad movie.

I operated by this understanding for years. Every time someone would point out how implausible it was that all of the characters got through a war or something like that, I would think, why would the author follow the ones who died?

But then I started reading George R. R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and all of my preconceived notions died like so many of Martin’s characters. I don’t mean to spoil the series for anyone, but if you’ve heard anything about it, you know not to get too attached to any of the characters. No one is safe from the author’s pen stroke of death.

As a man who is usually more fascinated by the characters than the story itself, this troubles me. How can I escape into a world of fantasy when it is as cruel as the real world?

Now, I know that authors use terrible events in the lives of their characters to prove their mettle and to draw readers in, but there is usually an unspoken rule that things will work out well in the end. And if the character happens to die, it will be a noble death, one that gives closure to the storyline.

But if the story is more important than the characters, then anything goes.

Which is more important to you? Story or characters? Do you ever feel cheated by the author’s choices to kill certain characters? Or would you feel cheated if things worked out TOO well for everyone?


4 thoughts on “Story Vs. Characters

  1. I think the main reason I get annoyed when a character I love gets offed is because I’ve invested hours reading and following this guy or gal.

    Also, if the character I love is mutilated in front of my eyes and degraded, I hate that. However, that probably means the author has written this character well, as I care about them so much.

    Sometimes it feels as though the main or lovable character dies because the author doesn’t want a happy story or wants to be “more literary” rather than giving the story the ending it deserves or what the people want. As a novelist I’m all for shocking the reader and leaving things open. The end of my current novel is not happy. However, the struggle is not meaningless in the end. Bad things happen. But good things happen too.

  2. Interesting take. I have not thought of this aspect before. I will have to dwell on it a while. I tend to like closure -not necessarily happy or sad ending. I look at the whole of the piece -book or movie and ask myself this question…”I’ve just spent. X# of hours in is endevour. Was it redemptive? Or a waste of my precious time? Even if it ends badly but the life lesson or character study was good I tend to say “yes” and not feel cheated. But if there is no timeless truth to be gained – again regardless of genre – then I feel cheated.

  3. While characters are very important to me, I love it when a writer allows a story to develop on its own, and sometimes that means it takes a tragic turn you didn’t expect. I also think that is why so much of what I read for work feels formulaic. Will the two main characters be able to overcome their pasts and let themselves love again? You bet they will. Some genres become essentially the same book done a million times. Same thing with TV shows. Which is why I love Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey. Those writers are not afraid to kill someone you absolutely LOVE because they are telling stories firmly set in a real world with real heartbreak and real tragedy. It’s amazing storytelling, but there is also an attention to character that is sorely lacking in so many TV shows. Give me a tragedy with a silver lining over a happily-ever-after any day.

  4. I love a great story and a great story requires great characters. I also love a story where no one is truly safe. A great story can include a beloved character dying, an unhappy ending, an unresolved ending, and even an ending where the “bad guy” wins. A story that allows for anything to happen keeps me interested and keeps me hooked. It makes the story’s conclusion, and whatever it may bring, that much more satisfying.

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