Plot versus Characterisation

Last night, I was reading an interesting piece by Alison Graham in this week's Radio Times, in which she talks about 'well constructed, gripping drama that tells good stories, something drama over here long ago sacrificed for the dreaded "characterisation." ' I found myself pondering this in the early hours of the morning - one of those comments that work away like yeast in the mind.
For years I've conducted writers' workshops, and people invariably ask me about plot and characterisation. I usually find myself repeating the conventional wisdom that character is what really matters, it is from character that plot springs, get that right, and everything follows on as night follows day, etc etc etc.
Which is true, most of the time! I write quite a lot of issue based drama, and there is nothing more boring than drama where the issues are firmly placed into the mouths of cyphers.
But it did start me thinking.
I've been watching Rome, addictively. Now I'm normally chicken hearted where gore and violence are concerned. But even when I have to watch this from behind a cushion, I find myself pinned to the sofa, unable to take my eyes off the screen. And when I think about it - apart from the acting which is exceptional, so many great performances that it would be hard to single any one out - the thing that has kept me engrossed has been the story. For sure, it wouldn't be so involving if the characters themselves weren't absorbing as well. But it is the way the story is put together that finally does it for me: the energy, the variety, the unexpectedness and outrageousness of so much of it.
So what does Graham mean by 'characterisation' I wonder? Well, if I'm honest, I know exactly what she means and I can remember the point where everything changed. Years ago, I used to watch a series called London's Burning, about firemen. It was good, solid entertainment, a new story every week, with a continuing group of interesting people. And then quite suddenly, one season, it changed. No longer was it a series of gripping adventures. It had become a series of personal dilemmas with the weekly 'story' only there as a vehicle for detailed explorations of ongoing relationships. Not only that, but these people were so obviously 'characterisations' - all back story and no substance. They were cliched, predictable, and irritating. I stopped watching. I stopped watching Casualty as well, just about the time when I found that I could predict exactly the way each week's story was going to go from the way everything was flagged up - by heavy handed characterisation - in advance.
So have we got the balance wrong, when as human beings we love nothing better than a good strong story, well told?
Take Doctor Who for instance. ( And what on earth will I do with my saturday nights now that the series is finished? Sad or what? I'll just have to buy the DVDs) We know enough about the Doctor, and his companions - enough to make us care about them all, but never so much that the back story dominates the drama of the present. There are other dramas that manage it as well, often, but not exclusively, American. But it would be interesting to know what anyone else thinks about this. And how does TV differ from other media in this respect?


Mark Fisher said…
I'm sure to be paraphrasing David Mamet very badly when I say this because it's a while since I've read him, but isn't his argument that in theatre and film character is dependent on plot? A character only becomes a character once the audience can see him/her responding to a particular event in a particular way. It's not an abstract thing. As children we don't need to know anything about the character of the Ugly Duckling or Little Red Riding Hood to be rooting for them when they are bullied or speak to strangers against their mother's wishes. How much do things really change when stories become more complex? This is an open-ended question - I'm not sure of the answer.
Mark I think you are quite right and have given me even more food for thought. One gets so used to spouting these truisms and then somebody comes along and turns the whole thing on its head...!