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April 17, 2010

How is character related to plot?

Character and plot are two different words.  So why do so many self-proclaimed experts say that “character is plot”?  (Are they just copying F. Scott Fitzgerald? Or do they have a point?)

The extreme film where character “is” plot is The Muppets Christmas Carol.  (this post contains spoilers.)

Scrooge is the plot.  He is the guy who made things as they are, and he is the one that suffers the consequences.   Only his actions can set things right at the end.

The film, in a way, is about Scrooge, and so is the story.  The other characters do not change, except perhaps in their attitude to him.  Without Scrooge, there is no story.

That’s not to say that he is the theme.  The theme is greed verses charity, or the Christmas spirit, or the love of money verses the love of our fellow man.

No, it’s not just about Victorian England.  Sam the Eagle accidentally tells the young Scrooge “Business, it is the American way”.  Gonzo then whispers in Sam’s ear, and Sam corrects himself  and says “it is the British way.”

We see here that the film is not about a particular time, or a particular injustice, but it has a universal message.  It tells each of us that we can make a good or a bad difference in the lives of others.

Scrooge is the sole master of his destiny.  His story is our story.  We are either watching to change our ways, or to hope that a “Scrooge” we know will change his.

Anne Frank is the opposite story.  She has no control over the Holocaust.  She can only keep quiet so that her family and friends aren’t caught.

Anne Frank seems similar to Tiny Tim.  She tries to understand Hitler’s madness.  Unlike Tiny Tim however, Anne is facing an irredeemable foe.  We know this is history, and we know that she can’t change her fate.

Yes, Anne Frank’s story is a unique story, she was an individual.  But the plot that affects her affected millions of others.  Millions of other stories can be made about other personalities in the same situation, and all could be true.  The plot is not her own doing, and it is not something she can change.   The people who are responsible do not interact with any of the major characters.

Most Holocaust films do not promote a universal theme.  Yes, films are made in the hope that this will never happen again.  But do we relate this movie to other genocides?

Are Holocaust films are meant to show the universal effect of man’s inhumanity to man?  We don’t have Sam the Eagle making that Freudian slip there for us.  These films are about one terrible part of history that we can’t go back and change.  Character isn’t plot here, history is plot.

The Christmas movie is the best example of “Character is plot”.  The sports movie, especially when it’s a one-on-one sport, is usually the next closest thing.

Rocky is the plot.  Sure, some other wannabe boxer might have the same story.  But every step of the way, he’s the guy calling the shots on what he’s going to do.  He’s not a helpless victim of some great big tyrant.  No, he’s not all that powerful either.  But he gains strength through his actions, he goes from a loser to a somebody.  Without Rocky’s actions, there is no plot.

Unlike Scrooge though, every other character’s actions make a difference too.  Adrian could decide she doesn’t like Rocky.  His competitor might stop fighting as hard and lose form.  Anyone’s actions can change the plot drastically.

In a war movie “history is plot”.  We know how the war happened, who won, and how much damage it caused.  No character has the power to prevent all those deaths, and no character has the power to change history on his own.

Most war movies aren’t just about one character.  They are about a team, who are in turn part of a larger team.  What they do affects their teammates survival and their own honor.  The hero didn’t create the situation, and no one can solve it alone.  One man may desert, but he’s only making himself into a coward, the war will be won without him.

A hero can move a plot, or the hero can be moved by it.  But what about when the hero moves against the plot, or the plot belongs to a minor character or even the villain?  To be continued…

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