Character vs. Plot Complexity

Is it justified to complain about simple plots anymore?

I’m referring to criticism leveled at, most recently, Pacific Rim and Gravity. In years past, film such as Lost in Translation were argued to have thin or even no plot at all.

It’s not a complaint I hear often about novels, perhaps because their length allows digression more readily. But the Sherlock Holmes books didn’t digress more than Clue A -> Clue B -> Misdirection -> Clue C -> Culprit Found, and I wouldn’t argue that it makes them any less important or enjoyable.

Really, all core plots are simple. A protagonist needs or wants something (or both), struggles, fails, and eventually is transformed. How many twists you add, how many subplots, how many Big Lipped Alligator Moments doesn’t matter.

Why do the Sherlock Holmes stories work, then, if they’re quite procedural in nature? I’d argue that it’s the characters who give a story depth. If Sherlock Holmes weren’t as contradictory and fascinating, those novels would be dull. Other mystery series work in similar ways: either the plots get more twisty, or the characters in them do, for them to stay as interesting as the codifier of the genre.

For a simple plot to work, you need more complex characterization, or vice-versa.

The film Gravity works, not just because of its impressive technical execution, but because Sandra Bullock’s character Stone is perfect for the story. She’s only minimally trained as an astronaut; she’s on the mission because she invented medical imaging technology that’s being installed on the Hubble. It’s implied she signed up for the mission because she’s running away from the memories of her daughter’s death and her subsequent isolation. Yet space itself is incredibly isolating. If Stone were just a paper-thin astronaut stereotype, we wouldn’t have any investment in the story. But if the story itself weren’t just a survival thriller with science fiction elements, a thinner character could fit better.

There’s a theory among SF writers that the weirdness present in any story is strictly zero-sum, meaning that if a situation is very weird, the characters should be less so. I’d expand that: the complexity in any story is zero-sum, not just how ‘weird’ or unusual it is to an audience. The longer a format for a story, the more complexity it can hold. Books like Dune, which is 600 pages long, can hold much more complexity, so its byzantine plotlines and complicated protagonist Muad’Dib can coexist. A book like The Old Man and the Sea can only hold a little in its 100-page length: an old man, a fish, and the sea.

Maybe that’s why, despite such a common plot and simplistic characters, Avatar works so well (and was so popular). Cameron’s worldbuilding, whether cribbed from older pulp novels or not, was so impressive and immersive. Drive is a counter-example: a film with a simple plot, a familiar setting, and one very deep, affecting performance by Ryan Gosling.

Pacific Rim, likewise, has a very fantastic premise: giant robots, with two pilots each, fighting monsters from a parallel universe. It’s also quite thematically deep: it can be read as a metaphor for dealing with loss, for building relationships, for fostering international cooperation, or even as a screed against climate change. The plot? The good guys are on the ropes, try one last strategy, and through enormous sacrifice win the day. It’s not at all complicated.

So when doesn’t it work? With either too much or too little complexity for a given format. The Last Airbender, among other things, crammed far too much story into 90 minutes. The Chronicles of Riddick, likewise, had just too much going on: a fantastic premise, a complicated character, and a hard-to-follow plotline.

Too little complexity? Try any Adam Sandler movie in the past ten years.

It’s something I learned instinctively working on The Daily WTF. I only have 750 words to tell a story. The core WTF in any submission is typically arcane (although not always), so there isn’t much room for anything else. I’ll draw on experiences common to the readers, like the micromanaging boss or the overcompetent developer. Simpler is better.

If the bare plot is the only thing you’re looking for in a story, maybe you ought to dig deeper. A well isn’t very wide, but they tap water just the same.