Answering the Famous Question

We all have our vices. But sometimes we get deeper into our vices because we view life as a tug-of-war between what we want with a piece of ourselves and what we want on another level- for our future, our children, our friends and family. But sometimes our vices aren’t a problem of avoiding a bad thing, but too much of a bad thing.

Entertainment can be great for us for relaxing and growth- but a seven-hour binge watch until 5 AM with work the next day could get us in trouble, or at least give us a miserable, strange day.

This famous question, which appeared of a final paper in one of my animation classes and I’ve heard fairly commonly, it like those vices. Fun is an essential part of life; it’s when those things which we find fun take over and rule our lives that they become a problem. But our lives have to contain fun, or we’d all hate our lives pretty quickly (or at least I’m pretty sure I would).

The famous question is this:

Which is more important: character or story?

The question seems innocent enough, but it was as I was dissecting this question years ago that I realized the harmful mindsets for writing that underly it. I realized how little I understood about story and what the question was really setting me up for: weaker characters and weaker story.

Let’s dissect the question and break it down:

Breakdown 1: Which is more important inside of the story: character or story?

Already we see some confusion. Is the container more important than that which it contains? The characters wouldn’t exist without the story; and at the same time, the story won’t progress without its characters.

A logical question though is, more important in which ways? Here’s what I think is usually meant:

Breakdown 2: Which of these elements inside of a story is more important for making a compelling story: character or story?

Again, this is confusing, because we’re asking if the container which makes the contained exists is more important than the contained…

…or if the contained which makes the container exist is more important than the container.

Let’s step back for a moment and ask ourselves, how does a story exist?

By characters acting.

How do we understand and relate to characters?

By seeing who they are through their actions, thoughts- by their stories large and small.

How do stories develop? By characters acting and responding to each other.

How do characters develop? Through how they respond and react to their stories- what happens to them and what they do.

So characters are intrinsic to stories, and stories are intrinsic to meaningful characters.

Here’s what I believe people are really asking when they ask the question, “which is more important”:

Breakdown 3: If I have to compromise between having something meaningful happen and having the characters be meaningful, which should I choose?

That third breakdown shows a misunderstanding of how characters and story are intrinsic to each other’s meaningfulness. Never sacrifice characters on an altar to story or story on an altar to characters.

Do you think that characters that act out of character make the story more or less believable?

Do you think that stories with less punch help us get to know the characters more or less?

Stronger characters lead to stronger and more meaningful story.

Stronger story leads to stronger and more relatable and lovable characters.

If you ever feel like your story is weak, strengthen your characters.

If you ever feel like your characters are weak, strengthen your story.

Story and character have a mutualistic relationship, and you cannot help one by harming or lessening the other.

Like our vices, the problem with the question isn’t a love of characters or story: it’s making a good thing an ultimate thing. Just like you need a proper balance of work and rest, and if you lose one the other in the long haul (and short haul, really) you suffer, your story will suffer if you make either character or story an ultimate thing.

Sometimes the best thing to tackle a hard project right is to take a quick nap, and sometimes the best thing to tackle a tough character is a tougher story.

Bookmark the permalink.
  • Svarmani Wolfborn

    If one has wonderful characters then the story will come easier, or so is my personal belief.

    • I agree; it’s a lot easier to see and figure out what sorts of things would be fun for them to do, what areas they need to grow in, what areas they’re strong in, etc., and that helps a lot with coming up with great ideas!