Some thoughts about writing inspired by a discussion elsewhere.
What actually is a character-based story? Well, I’d say it was a story about character. That’s not just that it’s a story that contains interesting characters, but that it is driven by those characters and the choices they make. And that’s because character is demonstrated through the choices someone makes; which way they decide to leap given two or more alternatives.
The alternative to a character-based story is a plot-based story, where characters are passive or reactive, and so don’t need to make decisions. They are effectively clockwork mice running through a labyrinth with no junctions. But these tales tend to be a bit dull, because if character is demonstrated by making choices, without choices, you don’t have any characters. These sort of stories are about people who are not in control of their own destinies. They're about victims of circumstance.
After all, think of all the greatest stories ever told, in films, books, TV, wherever, and the reason why they are so powerful is because they are about characters facing incredibly difficult choices. Think of Casablanca, where Humphrey Bogart has to choose between doing the right thing for the war and keeping the girl he loves. Or Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones has to choose between destroying the Ark or letting the Nazis have it. Or the New Testament, where Jesus has to decide between dying for people’s sins or not dying and having all of humanity's sins go un-died-for.
Drama, I would suggest, is all about creating moments where characters have to make incredibly difficult decisions. Where they have to choose between two outcomes, between doing the easy, safe, selfish thing, and doing the right thing. Where those choices come with consequences and costs. The best TV shows and films are not just full of these moments, their stories are about creating these moments and are constructed from these moments. About moments of crisis and leaps of faith.
I’d say the ultimate example of this is a choice mentioned in Robert Harris’ novel Pompeii, where the lead character’s wife has problems during childbirth, and he has to decide whether to let his wife die so the baby can live, or to let the baby die so the wife can live. An impossible decision to make, but an incredibly dramatic one. Each choice comes with a reward but at a terrible cost. And there are no guarantees, no absolutes; it’s a choice made in terms of risk, not certainties.
I’d argue that it is important for characters to be seen to live with the results of these choices, but that’s not compulsory. You can put the character in the situation, have them make their decision, and then have some other agency come to their rescue or make a choice for them. It’s something Russell T Davies does quite a lot with his season finales; the Doctor has to choose between wiping out the human race or letting the Daleks take over the galaxy, but fortunately Rose has looked into the heart of the TARDIS and so she can sort it out anyway. What you might call The Third Way.
Think of the greatest moments in Doctor Who. It’s the Doctor choosing between whether to kill the Daleks or to become as bad as the Daleks. It’s about him giving Peri the anti-toxin instead of saving it for himself. It’s the Doctor being forced to choose between defeating the Daleks and saving Rose. It’s about the choices; about characters demonstrating their bravery (or their cowardice). At its most basic, it’s about someone choosing to run into a burning building, risking injury and death to save someone else. And the more there is at stake, the more exciting the moment is.
There’s a recent episode of Doctor Who that did this very well, The Girl Who Waited, where Rory is faced with the impossible decision of choosing whether to save young Amy or middle-aged Amy. There are no easy answers. There’s no right and wrong. There’s a reward that comes at a terrible cost.
But if a story ends with characters not having to make any difficult decisions, where there is nothing at risk and where they don’t have any choice about what happens, I think that’s quite disappointing. A victory with no risk, no cost, no need for a show of courage is a hollow victory. It’s no victory at all. It’s like, oh, Luke Skywalker destroying the death star without using the force because his targeting computer is better. It might be the very clever thing to do but it’s not very dramatic.
It’s basically the equivalent of pointing a gun at the lead character’s head and saying ‘Press the story off switch!’ They don’t have any choice in the matter, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose, of course they’re going to press the story off switch. Compare that to pointing a gun at the love of the lead character’s life and saying ‘If you try to press the story off switch, I’ll kill the person you love!’ Suddenly you have drama, arising of out of character, arising out of choice. What will the lead character do? What would you do? What would Jack Bauer do? What would House do? What would Josh Bartlett do? What would Harry Pearce do? What would Dr Gillian Magwilde do?