Plot vs. Character

A buddy wrote me recently about the upcoming movie, Upgrade.

It’s not an adaptation of my book. This was as heartbreaking for me as it is for you, no doubt. I think the subtext of the email I got might have been, “Those motherfuckers stole your idea!” While it’s difficult to tell from a trailer whether someone has stolen my ideas verbatim, I think it’s more likely there’s some parallel evolution going on here. This is probably okay, and maybe we should even encourage it.

What the actual fuck? Read on.

The movie trailer looks great. Here:

Broadly, it shares some ideas with Upgrade. Not necessarily stolen, but common: the upgraded-human thing is very #cyberpunk, for example. Writers in genre fiction share some concepts (e.g., Altered Carbon…). The weird thing is, a movie and a book named the same thing might help. Imagine a situation where people see the movie, love it, and go to Amazon for the book. Handily, I have an established work of the same name. How fortunate.

Let’s do some inside baseball. I believe there are two main elements of a story, plot and character. Hope would write it like this:


Plots are, and I’m aware this sounds heinous coming from a writer, more or less generic. You can Google this for yourself, but there are a limited number of major plots. The things we see as new and interesting are often mixtures of other plot cycles, coupled with neat characters.

Hang on. Characters, you say?

Character is more interesting to humans, because we have massive egos. I suspect this is why, even though real pioneering space travel is more likely to be done by machines, our science fiction stories still have human crews on starships. We don’t care about AI Service Droid A-44121 investigating a rocky asteroid. We care about the crew of the Tyche, in the hard black, fighting against all odds. Go, team!

Humans are generally harder to recycle than plots. Characters interact with their environment. If your characters aren’t your own, they will do unconvincing things. Characters should never do something to serve plot. Plot serves the human heart of the story. The delta between mediocre and great fiction is, great fiction has really neat characters. I spend most of my time on character, like 80%. When I re-write, it’s because character needs to be better, not the plot. If I took the pen over from Hope, I might write it like this:


…which isn’t math, but is hopefully descriptive. Hope would shake her head and take the pen back from me, but the illustration remains. Character trumps all. I wrote about this a while ago in one of the most divisive newsletters I ever sent. I got a lot of responses on this, which were about 40/40/20. 40% of people agreed character > plot, 40% said I was a hack and plot > character, and 20% said plot and character were equally important.

Back to the Upgrade movie, the story probably has similar plot ideas (familiar beats in tech, or including a voice in the head, a la Carter), but the characters aren’t the same. Mason Floyd doesn’t feel like Grey Trace (an excellent cyberpunk name, if ever I saw one).

Why do I like this?

Let’s take the Expanse. It’s both a TV show and book series. I’ve read the books, love ‘em, and also love the TV show. Why? The TV show makes the characters subtly different. Even though I know the plot already, the story feels freshened because of the re-interpretation of character.

The take-home here is we should look at things similar to our works and see what the interpretations can teach us. It’s fun for fans to see the tropes they like, shown in a different way. It’s fun for us, to see some of our ideas re-represented. As long as the works are not recycled entirely, just the serial numbers filed off, then we can look at it with new eyes and be entertained and educated.

Are you not entertained?

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