Character-driven vs. Plot-driven (and the Unreliable Narrator)

(Bilde via AZquotes)

A tiny bit of info… Another instance of (over)simplification of a subject:

There are two basic storytelling options for you when writing (and rehearsing and acting) your monologues and/or scenes:

Character-driven or plot-driven. 

As an acting student you can begin by thinking about realistic vs stylized acting (styles) and their corresponding acting techniques.

You can actually choose which kind of story to write (character-driven or plot-driven) based on which kinds of acting techniques you want to work on, and what kind of performance you want to present: your concept.

A realistic or a non-realistic text are equally valid choices for you to make. One is NOT inherently better than the other.

The Character-Driven Story

When writing a realistic text, your character will be a specific as possible. The nuances of her personality are based on her previous circumstances and her goals/desires/needs.  Her individual, realistic (Stanislavsky would say: truthful) interactions with her changing circumstances are what make the story compelling.

She transforms and adjusts to the new circumstances.

Sometimes the changing circumstances are created by external events, but it is the character’s thought processes/changes that drive the story forward.

Because the audience identifies with a realistic character, they experience satisfaction (perhaps a catharsis) when the character has an emotional release, or grows in some way.

The text leaves room for subtexts and thought, and it reflects the changing internal circumstances of the character.

The Plot-Driven Story

When working on a text for a stylized performance, we might be using symbolism to more deeply engage emotions. The poet quoted in the meme above did not write for the stage, and therefore wasn’t concerned with the theatrical art of comedy: we are. And in our class, we are more likely talking about the art of parody and comedy.

Remember that Vsevolod Meyerhold did not deny with the value of Stanislavsky’s techniques for realism, but he believed that when actors were performing Symbolist plays or working with traditional theatre art forms like Commedia dell’arte, they didn’t benefit from the specificity generated by Stanislavsky’s system. The system alone didn’t provide the actors with the kind of craftsmanship they would need to portray “the moon”… or to skillfully render an excellent Pantelone.  This is why Meyerhold developed Theatrical Biomechanics.

In the case of physical comedies,  the story is more likely to be plot-driven.

We enjoy watching a familiar “type” reacting to shifting circumstances in ways that are true-to-type: the character  is a “type” unable to transform or adjust to the new circumstances.

The text is less about communicating subtext, and more about communicating true-to-type vocal habits and contextual information.

The comic value is, in part, reliant upon us recognizing the one-dimensional character and the absurdity of that character in a specific situation – often finding themselves suddenly “out of their element” by changes in the external circumstances. That is why this kind of storytelling doesn’t necessarily require a lot of text.

It does require controlled, expressive movement in the performance of the work. Rowan Atkinson’s Mister Bean is a good example of this kind of plot-driven storytelling.

The changing situation – around a static character – is what gives the actor the opportunity to show variation in the performance. The audience does not go on an emotional roller-coaster with the character; the text does not attempt to elicit empathy from the audience. Instead, the audience is entertained by the “surprise” of circumstances that befuddle a familiar “type”. The audience sees a familiar type going through a set repertoire of emotions.

While we do not empathize with the character, we do recognize the very human experience of thinking we know the world – and who we are in the world – and being taken by surprise by it anyway.

Drama is present in both kinds of storytelling: the presence of a conflict, and – most often – a resolution. 

Or for something all together different: A monologue as a kind of burlesque

That is, a slow reveal that forces us to objectify the character.

Instead of your character going through a change the audience believes they are meeting one kind of person and the more this person talks, the more we see who they really are. It can be even more fun if the dramatic irony is that the character doesn’t even know this about themselves.

For example, the person tells us they are very smart and have a lot of influence at work. As they talk about the details of their day we are able to see that they are an unreliable narrator – they really aren’t that smart, and they really don’t have the influence they think they do.

Be aware that this kind of monologue will probably have something of a verfremdungseffekt since the audience will have to go through an intellectual response to understand what is happening. Their emotional response to the reveal might range from anger to pity, but empathy (and thus catharsis) is less likely – even if the audience finds themselves identifying with the character. 

However, this doesn’t mean that these kinds of monologues don’t make good theater!

Whichever kind of story you choose: have fun.

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