Rant: Are Character-Driven Movies Really The Only Good Movies?
It seems like in every positive movie review, the reviewer will describe the movie as being "character-driven". I've become dubious about the term because I've found that if a term is used too frequently, it's usually used incorrectly. After reading an article about the Lost finale in which the author denied that the show is character-driven, I started to further question the concept of a character-driven movie, and whether or not the term is synonymous with good cinematic quality.
The idea that only character-driven movies are "good" has been driven into our skulls so exclusively that's it's easy not to question its validity. But calling a movie "character-driven" or "plot-driven" is not a statement about the quality of the movie, it's a statement about its general structure. I'm sure we all know some bad character-driven movies, and conversely, some great plot-driven ones. But things are still a little foggy here. Before we go further, we first need to define the concepts behind character- and plot-driven storylines.
Character-driven: The main character drives the movie's progress and is the focus of the audience's attention. The story may explore the philosophies of the characters, or the characters' idiosyncrasies may "steal the show". (Britton) The characters move the story forward and cause events to happen through their actions. (Schmidt)
Example: Napolean Dynamite and O Brother Where Art Thou. In both cases, the personalities and choices of the main characters dominate their respective movies.
Plot-driven: The events of the storyline drive the movie. The characters do not create situations or events themselves. (Schmidt) The maguffin is the most important aspect of the story and the characters are just along for the ride. It's important to note that just because a story is plot-driven does not necessarily mean that it does not have likable characters that experience some degree of character development. (Britton) But the sequence of events in the storyline is the primary focus of the movie.
Examples: The Indiana Jones movies. This will likely seem like blasphemy to fanboys, but remember that calling a movie "plot-driven" does not mean that it is mediocre. Also remember that a plot-driven movie can have likable characters. Undeniably, Indy is a fun character. But we know very little about his personality and philosophies from the movies, and he reacts to events rather than causes them. Indy dashes from one hair-raising adventure to another in a quest to find the Holy Grail, Lost Ark, or whatever, while his deeper self remains hidden.
A good metric to determine whether a story is character-driven or plot-driven is to ask yourself, what do I remember most about the story? (Britton) In character-driven movies, the characters themselves will be most memorable. Do you remember much about what the movie Napoleon Dynamite was about, or do you primarily remember Napoleon himself? Conversely, do you mostly remember Perseus' personality from the original Clash of the Titans, or his crazy-awesome fight with the Kraken?
Another note that might get the ire of some fanboys: a hero's quest movie is, by definition, not a character-driven movie. What's driving the story in a hero's quest is not the hero but the quest itself. The hero doesn't create the events, he reacts to them. That means that favorites like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are plot-driven. For example, the most important aspects in Star Wars are the events that happen to Luke on his quest, not his internal reflections. (Consider how little time is spent on Luke's reactions to the deaths of Owen, Beru, and Obi-Wan, compared to the time spent blasting Stormtroopers and TIE Fighters.)
It could be argued that the best stories are those that are actually a good mix of the two concepts: an interesting plot that moves well and features sympathetic characters. (Cloffi) A cinematic example may include Pirates of the Carribean. The events of the zombie pirate invasion are just as important to the movie as the idiosyncratic Jack Sparrow. While the audience might find Jack's personality the most memorable aspect of the movie, he's also reacting to events forced upon him.
I'm sure each of these examples is debatable. That's because movies have a mix of both character and plot and it can be difficult to determine which is the primary force driving the movie's events. I know that we're in the "character-driven box" right now, but plot-driven movies aren't so bad. I don't watch zombie, kaiju, and sci-fi movies for the internal reflections of the characters, after all.