Character vs Plot: The Chicken or the Egg?

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

I’ve recently been reading Aristotle’s Poetics, which is considered, along with Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, the foundation of modern screenplay writing (and dramatic writing in general). The interesting thing about these two books is that on the surface they appear to contradict each other. Aristotle insists that Plot is most important, and Egri insists that Character is king.

Now, a plot (or story) is simply a collection of actions arranged in such and such order. The order of individual actions affects the whole flow of a story. So we can understand “Character vs Plot” to mean “Character vs. Action.” By character we mean a person’s qualities.

Aristotle argues that it is not who a man is, but what he does that is important.¹ Aside from this, from what he is saying I can extrapolate: it is impossible to show character in a dramatic work. It is only possible to show action. Or, it is only possible to show character through action.

On the other hand, Egri would argue that action springs forth from a person’s character. If you want to write a certain story, you need a certain type of character, with certain attributes and qualities, who will act is such a way. For example, if you want to write a story where a man kills his neighbor, you need to start with a character who has the the attributes necessary to produce that specific behavior. Egri states that the personality, the qualities of the character drive his actions, which drive the story.

Character and action are a little bit like the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Are our actions a result of our character, or is our character a result of our actions? I would say both are correct. We redifine ourselves everyday. Who we were yesterday affects who we are today, and who we are today affects who we will be tomorrow.

Another way of stating this is through the triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, which can be described in this manner, (quoted from Wikipedia):

  • The thesis is an intellectual proposition.
  • The antithesis is simply the negation of the thesis, a reaction to the proposition.
  • The synthesis solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths, and forming a new proposition.
This system, thus applied to the so-called debate of Character vs Plot, can be rendered as follows:
  • Thesis: Aristotle writes on the subject of dramatic writing, and states that the Action (and/or plot/story) is the most important element, and that character springs forth from Action.
  • Antithesis: Lajos Egri, thousands of years later, writes on the subject, negating what Aristotle wrote, and asserting that Character is the most important element of dramatic writing, and that it is Character that drives Action, not the other way around
  • Synthesis: A thorough understanding of both works will help us to realize that Action and Character flow both ways; one’s character affects his actions, which then in turn affect his character. And so it is a continuous cycle, with Action and Character intertwined, both helping to determine the other.

Thus we see that the two most important elements that someone writing a dramatic work must consider are Character and Action (or Plot/Story).

Note that Aristotle never says Character is unimportant, he says it is the second most important thing in drama. “The Plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: Character holds the second place.” Aristotle also writes about several other elements of a dramatic work besides Character and Plot, including Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Song. According to Aristotle, Plot and Character are both more important that all these other elements.

Another reason why action and plot are important is to show cause and effect. “Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.”

Actions = Cause

End = Effect

In drama, the end result of all of the actions taken can be thought of as the thesis of the work. An author uses dramatic literature to show what happens as a result of certain actions.

For anyone interesting in dramatic writing, I highly recommend reading both Aristotle’s Poetics and Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. A free PDF version of the former can be found here

1. An interesting side note related to the subject is a quote often misattributed to Aristotle, that was actually taken from Will Durant’s writings on Aristotle (emphasis added; see the article on Aristotle on Wikiquote)

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions’; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: ‘the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life… for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy'”

2.  Since writing this blog post, I found another article that uses the Chicken and the Egg analogy to describe Character and Plot. It also illuminates the difference between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Check it out here.


One comment

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