Does Character Deserve to be a Fundamental Story Element?
An Argument For Relationships To Take Its Rightful Place At The Top of the List
Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown” has no character arc. None whatsoever.
The other day, I watched the first episode of The Crown, “Wolferton Splash”. Then I immediately watched the most recent at the time of this writing, season 5 episode 10 “Decommissioned”. While character arcs in TV series favor subtlety more so than in movies, they are still present, or so we thought. Enter The Queen. Instead, her journey is primarily influenced by the arcs of other characters, arc-infused symbolism, and the real-life age of the superb actors who portray them. Of all the creative rules to break, the character arc is arguably the most difficult departure to successfully pull off. This is but one exhibit of an overwhelming pile of evidence for the show’s brilliance.
Let’s get straight to the controversy: The Crown is not a dramatization of historical facts, it is of romanticized historical accounts. Queen Elizabeth was both an inspirational leader as well as a protector of colonial culture no longer welcome in this day and age. However, the hate-bait surrounding Her Royal Highness will not be addressed here. Instead, the focus is on the fictionalized version, appropriately chosen as evidence of a flawed, outdated list of fundamental elements of storytelling, starting with character.
Each new season of The Crown, I ask myself, “If this were pure fiction, in a fictional kingdom, does the story still hold up? Are the characters still well-rounded and three-dimensional? Are the relationships still deep and rich, navigating immersive, compelling situations?”
Each season, my answer is “yes”. The emotional attachment and nostalgia certainly give it a boost. So, maybe in a vacuum, it doesn’t earn a place in the pantheon of televised storytelling, or maybe it does. Either way, the astronomical quality is undeniable, despite a complete absence of something as crucial as the lead role’s character progression.
Character is often listed as the first element of story, not only to account for narrative vessels, used to drive the plot forward, but also for the distinctions of the setting, costumes, lighting, music, and even symbolism. Character is possibly the single story element that applies to every aspect of a story, right down to closing credits, the font used in the foreword, or how an actor carries his or herself during the final curtain call. So, how can character, as a conceptual element, be flawed in the list of fundamental elements of story? Because of one single, often overlooked application of it: one character affecting another.
As a thought exercise, if we were to go back and revise season one of “The Rings of Power”, what would be at the top of the list of changes? Think of the characters in this ambitious fantasy epic. It’s safe to say most are interesting, distinct from each other, compelling, and necessary to the story. The Rings of Power, as a roster of characters, could be tweaked sure but an overhaul isn’t necessary. The same cannot be said about the relationships they have with each other. This includes the wider spectrum of the concept of character, for example the residential population of Númenor. Their relationship with other lead Númenor characters and Galadriel is broken. Also, the possibilities between Elrond and Celebrimbor could have been monumental. An expected betrayal could have been accompanied by unexpected motives, conflicts, and juxtapositions, not unlike moments seen in The Crown. Instead, the inevitable twists fall embarrassingly flat. Not because the characters were flat but rather the dynamics generated between them failed to materialize.
If you could only have excellent characters or excellent relationships in your story, which would you choose? How often are characters conceptualized first and relationships second? What if the order were reversed? Here’s the big one: If excellent relationships are developed first, wouldn’t that make excellent character development noticeably easier? Answers to these questions shed a pretty bright light on which is more critical than the other. So then, why isn’t “relationships” on the ever-important list of fundamental elements of story? For that question, I cannot think of an answer.