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Writing Insights: Character Driven Storytelling – your characters, your protagonists, your antagonists, are the ones who need to drive your story

Insights from Ian Kennedy

“The antagonist needs to be a stronger driver of the plot than the protagonist in several ways – to provide a threat and complications for the protagonist, to create conflict and hence create an engaging story with high stakes…” By Ian Kennedy, WriteMovies Director of Worldwide Development.

Individual character motivations are often taken for granted by writers who think they have a well-executed plot – and these scripts are often marked by undistinctive characters who behave predictably (“this is what a hero would do”, “we need her to say this for the sake of the plot”). But it is usually due to the characters’ own drive and commitment to the story that the plot actually involves us and works. Character-driven storytelling is an important part of making a connection with the audience: if it’s not the characters themselves who are driving the story forward at every point, the story feels fake and forced and artificial.

If the plot isn’t strongly driven by a character or a group of characters, we feel a disconnection from it – we feel as though the action bears little importance, and that the plot can, and will, probably be solved by an external influence or set of coincidences.

Having a “Deus ex machina” plot device (such as a ‘miracle cure’ discovered, or some higher power coming down unprompted to solve a problem for our characters) is the ultimate way to disconnect an audience from the plot and the characters. This is when an external, godlike force is brought in by the writer to bring about an unexpected solution that the plot doesn’t deserve. Here are some several high-profile examples of a “deus ex machina” used in films.

Unsatisfying Plot Developments

One well-known deus ex machina plot device is used in THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT trilogies. At one crucial point, giant eagles suddenly appear to attack the enemies and rescue our characters; so why didn’t the Fellowship just ride the eagles to Mt. Doom to destroy the One Ring in the first place? While it is arguable whether the eagles are plot holes or not, they are most certainly deus ex machina plot devices in the films and frustrate many viewers:

  1. The first time the eagles are used as deus ex machina is when they save Gandalf from Orthanc, the stronghold of Saruman. Gandalf has been taken captive after the betrayal of Saruman and there is seemingly no escape. Out of nowhere, a moth flutters near to Gandalf and he recognizes this as a sign that the Eagles are coming to rescue him. Thereafter, Gandalf jumps off the top of Orthanc, onto an eagle and flies away. We never see the connection between Gandalf and the eagles or the history they share, and because of that, Gandalf’s escape seems unjustified and unsatisfying. The character we feel a connection with, Gandalf, has not done anything himself to make us believe in this rescue.
  2. The second occasion the eagles are used as deus ex machina is when the eagles save Sam and Frodo from the erupting Mt. Doom. Sure, the eagles have been set up with the previous example and they have come to help Aragorn’s army against the forces of evil. However, this cannot be seen as a setup and a payoff, but rather the repeating of this unsatisfying plot device. Frodo and Sam have seemingly given up on surviving, and so too have the audience. This saving of Frodo and Sam is affected by the lack of information given to the audience for the previous example. If we knew why the eagles saved Gandalf previously, we would be more willing to accept the eagles saving Frodo and Sam, too.
  3. Finally, in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, the eagles come to save Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Dwarves from a band of Orcs. While this second Middle-Earth trilogy was released ten years after the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, there is still no setup within the plot for the eagles coming to save them and, once again, characters that we should feel connected with have been saved by forces out of their control – and, importantly, beyond their deserving.

The books provide some information and Gandalf explains his connection with the eagles and their reasons for saving him and the other aforementioned characters. This can be achieved with just one piece of dialogue in the films by Gandalf, or even the eagles themselves (who are able to talk in the books).

While we can possibly accept the eagles’ appearances in these trilogies in the second or third instance because certain visuals are repeated to signal their coming (the moth appears to Gandalf every time just moments before the eagles arrive) there are other much more ridiculous examples of deus ex machinas in film. In HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, Harry confronts a young Voldemort and a basilisk (a giant snake with the ability to kill just by looking in the eye) in the Chamber of Secrets and there is seemingly no way Harry can win.

Suddenly, Fawkes – the phoenix that Harry met in Dumbledore’s office – flies into the Chamber carrying the Sorting Hat. This is seemingly innocuous, but within the hat is a sword that presents itself to Harry. With this sword, Harry is able to defeat the basilisk and Voldemort, but the sword literally comes from nowhere. This is the issue with stories that use magic – it can so easily be used as a “get out of jail free” card if the writer has worked themselves into a corner.


How Characters Can Drive the Plot to a Satisfying Resolution

The “deus ex machina” is a deeply unsatisfying way to resolve a plot or piece of action because this is an unrelated occurrence that is not driven by the characters. It is disjointed and frustrating to find that something irrelevant has solved a problem that we were emotionally invested in. Of course, these sorts of coincidences and external influences happen in real life, but that is part of why we turn to fiction a lot of the time – we don’t want to live in an arbitrary world, we want to feel as though everything is connected, because then we may have some influence ourselves. It’s far simpler and more empowering to experience an utterly interconnected story, than be reminded of the complex and muddled reality of things which we came to the cinema to escape.

A more satisfying example of a similar plot device comes in HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. The story has various connections that flow throughout the plot, that are connected to Harry also, and these connections are used to resolve an otherwise impossible situation in the climax – there’s a satisfying use of setup and payoff.

Harry is in his fourth year at Hogwarts and is taking part in the Triwizard tournament, despite not actually having entered himself into it. By various means, Harry overcomes several difficulties and he, and fellow pupil Cedric Digory, find the Triwizard cup, but they are transported to a dark place, to Voldemort. Cedric is murdered and Harry is outnumbered by Voldemort and his followers – it seems there is no way out for him. But Harry has learned about two very important things this past year – portkeys and the “accio” spell. Portkeys are magical objects that transport people to various places in the world, and this was setup early on in the plot and used again here to transport Harry to Voldemort’s hideout. However, the portkey is too far away from Harry for him to escape. Fortunately, Harry has learned a spell that summons objects to him – the accio spell. Harry used this spell in the plot earlier, too, in a previous Triwizard challenge, and now he is using this new skill to escape Voldemort’s clutches. This is enjoyable – but what is more disappointing is that it takes several of Voldemort’s victims’ ghosts to also suddenly appear and provide additional protection from Voldemort in order for Harry to execute his clever escape. Here, J.K. Rowling has given us a perfectly viable internal solution to a plot problem – and spoils it by also throwing in a deus ex machina sideshow.

Harry has grown and developed as a character in this film, he learns about new and wondrous things that he uses to help him out of certain situations. Perhaps most importantly, the audience is learning about these magical objects and spells as Harry learns about them. Therefore, we feel connected to Harry as a peer and we don’t have to suspend belief when Harry uses his new abilities and knowledge to resolve an impossible situation.


So, we have to feel connected to the protagonist. But perhaps more importantly, we also need to feel a connection between them and the antagonist, so that the plot doesn’t feel like an arbitrary genre movie. The antagonist needs to be a stronger driver of the plot than the protagonist in several ways – to provide a threat and complications for the protagonist, to create conflict, and hence to create an engaging story with high stakes. So we need to feel a connection between the protagonist’s character-driven story, and that of the antagonist, also. One powerful way that this can be achieved is through ‘twinning’ the hero with the villain… as I’ll explain in another article!

The follow-up article “Why you should ‘twin’ your hero and Villain” is coming soon. Meanwhile, check out other writing insights articles such as “Insights: Genre and what it really tells us” and What your scripts have been telling us: January to June 2016


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