When you start blogging or writing about something regularly, you start to pick up on certain things. You begin to pay attention to certain details of stories others don’t, or you just consider things people often overlook. Basically, you overthink every aspect of what you see, pretty much because you have to, but it’s something I’ve done since a young age anyway.
When you also enjoy writing and crafting your own stories, these little details and discussions become even more important. You don’t just get to experience something. You need to have an understanding of how that thing came to be in the first place, so you can create something similar yourself.
Now there are tons of different aspects of telling a story that I won’t get into today, but of all of them, there are really two parts that are the most important, or at least mostly everything falls into one of these two groups: the plot itself, and the characters that are the actors of that story.
That’s very much what characters are. They are the catalyst that brings the story to life. They are actors, just as much so as in plays, or live-action, even if they aren’t always portrayed by real people. They are still acting out their necessary part to bring their story to life. But if there’s no plot, what can they bring to life?
And that chicken or the egg situation is but one of the many reasons this is a discussion worth having. When I think of stories in general, this is the most interesting one I always come back to. So, I’ll start by asking you. What do you think is more important, a good story with bad characters or a bad story with good characters?
Right off the bat, that’s a pretty complicated question. You can sit there and think about it for a long time, and it really doesn’t get any simpler. Ideally, you would, and the best stories do, have both, but that’s boring. You can only have one or the other. Both have their issues. A bad plot would weigh down good characters and ultimately make them bland as a result. At the same time, what can good characters do to shine if the story they’re conveying is bad? It seems like a situation you just can’t win.
But that’s why it’s exciting to talk about. If I had the definitive answer right here in my magic book of answers, what point would there be in writing this? I’d be out of a job! Well, I wouldn’t. This isn’t my job… I’d be out of a hobby, damn it!
There’s the obvious perk of the plot being arguably the most important thing. Before you can have characters meant to play a role, you need a role to fulfill in the first place. Regardless of how well-written any character is, unless they have some kind of plot to work with, you’ll end up with a whole lot of nothing. And if there is a plot but a bad one, you risk ruining what was good about the characters or not allowing them to shine.
So in that way, it seems pretty obvious that you need a good story. You could have the most well-written, deep characters the world has ever seen. They could be so masterfully crafted that they’re inseparable from real people. But if you then take those characters and stick them in some soulless, generic series that’s been done to death, you’ll just have a soulless generic series that’s ever so slightly less generic when you have almost all the parts for a top-tier series.
The famous first Aincrad arc is actually pretty good. It has a super fascinating premise. We meme the hell out of it now, but the whole you die in the game, you die in real life thing was cool. Mix that with the players being trapped in the game against their will, forced to try and live a normal life why their bodies slowly die on the outside, and you have a really fascinating plot with a lot going on.
And then you have Kirito. Now, for as much as the internet loves to crap on the guy, he isn’t that bad. His biggest issue is he’s boring. Not only for the fact that he looks like every other protagonist alive, but his personality, actions, most things about him is boring. There’s a reason you can name a dozen characters like him off the top of your head.
There are quite a few reasons SAO remains as infamous as it is, but to me is a pretty good example of a surprisingly solid plot with a main character that can’t quite bring things together and ends up making the whole thing bland as a result. Not to mention that many of the characters are 2-dimensional. And, well, then there’s also the stuff with Asuna in Fairy Dance that taints one of the best characters and leaves a bad taste in your mouth overall, but we don’t talk about that. Yet.
So you can certainly have bad or mediocre characters in a good plot, but you then run the risk of completely watering down what could have been really good. Though, in SAO’s case, it’s really a mix of both being bad at times. For an example of the opposite, we can talk about a pretty recent series I never wanted to discuss again.
Why am I back here? How did this happen? Osamake is a Rom-Com from the previous season that is not so good. It’s bad, dare I say not because it does anything bad in particular. It just makes no sense whatsoever. I think there are plotlines or something that resembles arcs, but they’re so messy and random that I’m really not certain.
Sueharu, our lead, is actually pretty good. I like him a lot, and he makes what is a fever dream of a story somewhat interesting. And I say “somewhat” because he still doesn’t save it. The story is so all over the place and nonexistent at times that even a decent lead doesn’t help make it much better.
Sueharu in another Rom-Com, one with more competent writing, would probably make an above-average series. Honestly, all the characters in Osamake really aren’t bad. If you took them and plopped them right into another harem series, even one with very average writing, it would once again be good.
Osamake’s problem is that its story is just so all over the place, it doesn’t allow for the decent characters to be good. So now, we see the opposite is true. A good story is watered down by bad characters, and good characters can’t shine in an awful story. So is that it? Neither works? Kind of. It depends on the context of the story and what themes the plot is trying to convey.
There’s one genre, in particular, that does not have any real story to speak of, and often times has very cookie-cutter characters, but is still enjoyable. That is, of course, slice of life series, like Non Non Biyori above.
The whole point of slice of life is that it’s about nothing. It’s about the daily lives of a few trope-heavy characters. Not a good story, not the best characters, but still good. I used to have more of an issue with it, as you can this in this post here, but I started to come around, especially when I watched Non Non Biyori a few months ago.
Slice of life goes against everything we talked about, but it also helps prove the point of which (I think) is more important. There are different ways to tell a story. Some can be planned out from the beginning and have deep lore thought out over years. Some can be about world-building. All these aspects help convey your story. Or, you can turn the actors into the story. Slice of life series are character-driven stories.
These are plots that rely largely on the characters as a way to tell the story and convey its message. It may seem the same, but there are subtle differences. Character-driven stories focus more on the characters and what they do rather than what’s happening around them. One would focus on the world and the other on those who inhabit it, for instance.
That’s a plot you certainly could convey with something story-driven, just in a different way. Let’s use a game company, for example. Seems pretty fitting for Sakurasou. Story-driven might focus on the company and the many challenges it faces relating to those themes. Perhaps competition with rival companies, maybe unfair work schedules, not enough employees. Still, it would ultimately come back to that never give up spirit.
Character-driven would focus on a select few of those people in that company and the personal challenges they face from the events happening to the company. So, they’re basically the same thing but focus on two sides of the same coin. Not even that. Character-driven looks at the same side, just through a microscope. You still get the big picture, but the focus is on a smaller, more personal scale.
So what’s the answer? Whatever you prefer– no, I’ll actually answer this time. I would say, and I’ve always thought this, that characters are far more important than a story. So much so that even if you put it on a scale from 1 to 10, and every point your characters go up, you lose quality in the story, I would still turn the characters all the way up. Down with the plot!
And that’s for one simple reason. It’s true that bad characters can hurt a good story and that a bad story can hurt good characters, but the biggest thing is that one of these isn’t quite as bad as the other. Characters, even through a story-driven plot, are how that plot is conveyed to the reader or viewer. They are the final step to the completed picture.
It doesn’t matter how good your plot is. If your characters are awful, boring, husks, any impact that story has is ruined. Think of a professional singer. They have a beautiful, clear voice, and everything they sing drives people to tears every performance. Now, think of if they sang into a cheap microphone from a yard sale that has constant static. They would suck. Any talent would be drowned out.
Meanwhile, if you took a bad or mediocre singer and gave them a professional level microphone, you could at least understand their good points, and if there are none, you have an understanding of what was done badly. It isn’t a garbled mess. Characters are the conduits that let us experience the story. They’re the pipe sending that sweet story to us. If there’s a leak in it, it doesn’t matter what’s on the other side. We’ll never get all of it.
So even if the story is bad or nonexistent, as long as the characters can properly convey what they’re supposed to, you’ll still end up with a decent product. It’s the entire reason slice of life can exist. It has no story, but the characters are often fun enough to convey that lack of direction energy that makes them entertaining in the first place.
And sometimes, let’s be honest. Equipment matters a lot. A mediocre voice can sound great with the proper microphone, the same way a boring story can be brought to life with complex characters. It still ultimately comes down to what you believe, and I would love to hear other opinions about this debate, but for me, I’m characters all the way. They’re pretty damn important.
Thank you very much for reading
What do you believe is more important? I know some of my blogger friends I’ve met are also writers, and I’d like to know what you value more.