Which is more important: plot or character?
Everyone will tell you that both are equally fundamental in a good story, or state that it depends on genre – action movies can do without complex characters filled with inner conflicts because said characters must save their asses and get off that plane which is about to crash, while romantic comedies are more about the characters and the particulars of their inner search for love.
Personally, I’m not so sure it depends on genre. I actually think you can do without character if your character is faced with a very strong dilemma.
I came to this hypothesis after reading the work of a fellow screenwriter who is attending, just like I am, the workshop The Essence of your story (starting September 20th at the Binger Film Lab here in Amsterdam). He managed to place his central character, a woman in her late twenties, in such a terrible dilemma that she really doesn’t need any characterization. She is that dilemma. Since I cannot discuss the particulars of the story here (I’m looking forward to doing it during the workshop), I tried to find another example of this kind of story design.
Cloud 9, by German director Andreas Dresen (see the New York Times critic here) is one. Inge, a 67 year old woman, falls in love with Karl, who is 76. The problem is that Inge is married; she has been happily married to Werner for 30 years. She starts having an affair with Karl. What is she to do? Leave her husband, the husband of a lifetime, who will be heartbroken and probably lonely for the rest of his life? Continue cheating, which is ugly and destructive? Or stop seeing Karl and throw away her passion, which is a gift that no woman of her age can expect to come across?
You don’t really need to know who this woman is. She’s old – that’s all the characterization that matters. The story unfolds slowly as she battles with her dilemma and finally makes her choice, and suffers the consequences.
A powerful dilemma is a very elegant thing. It allows you to tell a story with the bare minimum: a choice to be made, and the making of that choice.