100 Things Challenge (#2):: The Origins of Fiction: Character vs. Plot
We're taught from a young age to think of stories as a string of events that happen to characters. Even when I look up story in my trusty Webster's New World Dictionary that has been my companion since the third grade, it defines the word as "the telling of an event or events; account; narration." The human element is utterly absent. When I ask a student to summarize a story, I don't expect him to wax eloquent on characterization, theme, or language choice; I expect him to tell me what happened first, next, et cetera. When my students invent their own stories, I give them a plot pyramid as a graphic organizer to get them started, not a character map. In fact, if I were to ask most of you to outline a story you're thinking about but haven't started writing, where would you start? Probably with a list of events, in chronological order, perhaps in outline form to more easily accommodate subplots. We tend to think of the plot as the main structure of the story; the skeleton, if you will. Characterization is something that is added onto that as a writer gains experience: the flesh upon the bones but not sturdy enough to sustain the entirety on its own.
Starting from plot, therefore, character choices serve the events in the story. Item IV on my outline tells me that I need a villain, so I create a villain. That doesn't mean that he must be one-dimensional or a flat character, but he is conceived in fulfillment of a particular role in the story, so it is likely that his primary characteristics will let him fit neatly into that role. Anything that I do for him, as far as characterization, beyond that role is really extra.
But I would argue that this isn't the only way to write. First of all, I want to be clear that I'm not envisioning a neat dichotomy whereby one is Plot Writer or one is a Character Writer. I believe that most of us occupy a gray area between those two extremes. Even AMC--one of my most character-driven stories--was constructed around the idea of moving toward events in the plot of The Silmarillion, even if those events don't happen in AMC itself. So the characters were, naturally, shaped somewhat by them and my knowledge of how those characters would have to behave in the future. Second of all, even though I practice a particular type of writing, I in no way believe it to be the better or superior way to write. I'm just describing what works for me.
I start with people rather than plot. This is, after all, how it happens in real life. You start a new job, and your coworker has particular traits: The plot evolves in one way. You start a new job, and your coworker has totally different traits: Now the plot is completely different. Plot comes largely from human interaction or reaction; even something beyond human control, like a natural disaster, is understood in terms of human reaction to it. A story about the drowning of Númenor that lacks any human element would be simply a description of a big wave inundating an island; it wouldn't be very interesting to read as a piece of fiction, no matter how lovely the language. It is the addition of human emotions and reactions that make the story interesting.
But I've long been of the belief that dramatic events are in no way essential to make a story so good that you cannot put it down. Think about your own life and what you report to your friends, spouse, parents, or other loved ones at the end of the day. Is this stuff in any way dramatic? Goodness no, or we'd never have anything to say to each other at all! Maybe you were recognized by your boss for a job well done, maybe you failed an exam, maybe you were annoyed with the man in front of you at the coffee shop because he was having a loud conversation on his cell phone. Yet your people listened to this minutia and probably cared deeply. It may have been enough to even affect them emotionally. They felt your triumph, disappointment, annoyance. Why? Because they care about you and, therefore, it is not a huge stretch to manage empathy.
I think the same is true of characters in fiction. It's what I call the Broken Grocery Sack Theory, which in short, says that a story about a character (written to be realistic and empathetic) walking with a heavy sack of groceries that splits and breaks halfway to her destination will inspire more emotion in readers than a story about a character (written flatly and wholly in service to the plot) undertaking an exciting quest where she risks risks life and limb. It's the same reason you can listen to a ten-minute account about your friend splitting her grocery sack halfway home from the store but not even care enough to click on a news brief about a man you don't know climbing Mount Everest.
One of my favorite things to do, as a writer, is to work on developing two characters (which for me is almost never done at all on paper but rather in my imagination alone) and then throw them into a room together and see what happens. It is often the case that a story happens. AMC really started that way; I had no idea what would happen in that story until it happened. As a result, it is a big, sprawling, messy story where the most exciting part plot-wise is probably where Tyelkormo, Findekáno, and Carnistir run away from home. Someone once suggested that I cut AMC by 75%, and I could certainly do that, but that suggestion rather misses the point of what I think makes the story work in the first place. Without that 75% of "fluff," the story would become essentially meaningless.
In everyday life, the situations where another person inspires a strong emotion in us tend to be those that we remember. In fact, our memories often shift in accordance with that person and that emotion. I cannot tell you about every day I worked at the ice cream restaurant, but I can tell you about a select few occasions where the people involved made themselves memorable. I can still feel the anger, elation, and disbelief that they inspired. This is really a key part of being human and, therefore, I think a compelling place to begin when telling our stories as well.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!