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Medium Dawn Felagund of the Fountain

100 Things Challenge (#2):: The Origins of Fiction: Character vs. Plot

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

bread and puppet




"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

100 Things Challenge (#2):: The Origins of Fiction: Character vs. Plot

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little red riding hood
A few years ago, I made a statement that got people quite unexpectedly riled up. I said that not much exciting tends to happen in my stories, plot-wise. Ho boy, did people jump to defend me against myself, arguing that stories like Another Man's Cage were actually quite involved in terms of plot and very exciting in that regard. At the time, it surprised me, as the relative lack of plot in my stories has always been, to me, self-evident. In retrospect, I don't think I was as precise as I needed to be in commenting on the plot of most of my stories and therefore brought the ensuing brouhaha upon myself. My point was more about where my stories arise from: They arise from character, not plot. The plot that develops is incidental to the characterization rather than the other way around.

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!

http://dawn-felagund.dreamwidth.org/293956.html
  • At risk of sounding like my only comments on these entries are going to be "me too!," I relate very much to this.

    I've never been the type of writer to develop a plot outline. I have characters I want to work with, and I latch on to them and run from wherever I decide the beginning ought to be. I usually do not know exactly what's going to happen to them, aside from a few Big Ideas for compelling scenes and possibly a vague and highly malleable idea of the ending.

    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.

    Now I just feeling like "tsk"ing the suggester. I've not had the chance to read AMC yet, but all of this only makes me more inclined to make the time this summer.
    • I've never been the type of writer to develop a plot outline.

      Me neither. In fact, in high school, I was so turned off by the idea of having to outline anything that I wrote, including essays, that I used to write the essay early and then build the inevitably required outline from it. As my nonfiction work has grown beyond the five paragraphs required in high school, I have learned to use outlines for that, but not for fiction. The most I might do is jot some plot sequences if I know ahead of time that certain events have to happen in a certain order to make the story work. I have no memory for plot, so I'm always worried I'll get so wrapped up in the story that I'll forget the order things have to happen and end up making a major mistake. I've always felt that outlining ruins some of the fun for me. After all, I like discovering right alongside the characters what's going to happen in the story! :)

      Completely random aside: What kind of bird is pictured in your icon?
      • The most I might do is jot some plot sequences if I know ahead of time that certain events have to happen in a certain order to make the story work.
        Ditto.

        Oh those patronizing outline requirements in primary school were one of the reasons I got so anxious about essays that my grades in classes were sometimes C's and D's due to not completing them (compared to now, where, left to my own devices, I castigate myself eternally if I receive the rare B in a course).
        I'm hyper-organized about class notes and other things where I'm receiving information in real time, but I can't outline things before I'm convinced I actually have the info!
        __________
        Re icon: It's a magpie! =) I can't remember the exact species. I take great delight in all corvid birds.
        • I castigate myself eternally if I receive the rare B in a course

          *waves* Yep. So me too. :D

          It's a magpie! =)

          Thank you! We don't have them here, but I saw them all over when I was in England. And then I realized I had one on my Scythian T-shirt! :D I meant to look them up but when I saw your icon thought I'd just ask instead. :)
          • I've got two Bs during the past 5 semesters, both in math, and both times I was all, "Grr, I found it boring and unrelated to my goals, but that doesn't mean I couldn't have studied it just a bit more!"

            No problem, glad I could help. It's a European magpie to be precise, now that I re-check the facts. Here in California, we have yellow-billed magpies. I love them so very much. ^_^
  • Genuine emotion is the heart of any story, whether poetry or prose. It reminds me of Robert Frost's quote, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." Of course it takes skill and practice too, and lots of failure along the way, to become even a halfway decent writer. But at the end of the day, if the author isn't emotionally invested in the characters, the story will be lifeless. If the writer can't even summon up any real feeling for characters, how can the reader be expected to?


    • And yet it sometimes seems, to me anyway, that this expectation does sometimes exist. Until I began participating in fandom, creative writing was taught to me as an almost clinical process. (In fact, interning in a creative writing class last year, I got that impression again!) There were the outlines and the character maps and the overreliance on the thesaurus ... I do realize that these tools can help new writers manage the overwhelming task of putting a story from their head onto paper, but I do think there comes a time when a person just needs to sit in front of a blank page and just go. :)

      Incidentally, I think my next post in this series will be about emotion in writing ... :D
  • You describe very well why one would write or read character-driven fiction and what it really means in the concrete.

    The plot that develops is incidental to the characterization rather than the other way around.

    I actually think every heated argument I ever had about writing was based on the taste question of plot vs. character, including at root my own annual rants about how alien the idea of Nanowrimo is to me. Unless I were to use it to write a sequel to an already produced novel or fanfiction, it would take me a month of thinking to decide who are the characters in this novel. If I do that in advance of the starting date, then I don't consider it a 30-day project. Plus, what kind of random number is 50,000 words? Way too long for a novella and considered too short for a standard novel by most publishers. (I wrote a 52,000-word novel. But it was fanfiction and I was the publisher!)

    There are people who initially decide on a plot and then think about the characters. Personally, I have to know almost everything from birth to the beginning of a story about my character before they can take a step or speak a word. I often find stories too plotty, or annoyingly over-filled with non-stop action sequences. I never read a story with too much in-depth character development. There was a huge fad for a few years that is finally fading a little of people being encouraged to write surprise-a-minute urgent physical action, claiming it is needed to hook a reader. That reader was never me.

    I do not care how clever the premise is or how interesting the world, if I do identify strongly with the protagonists, I will not like a work of fiction. If the characters are flat or utterly unlikeable, no number of car chases or battle sequences or even worlds colliding will make any of it matter to me. (For me, they do not have to be good to be likeable either. Better if they are at least a little wicked, hopefully a complex mixture of good and bad.)
    • If I do that in advance of the starting date, then I don't consider it a 30-day project.

      Well, the 30 days is supposed to be for the writing itself. I've only done NaNo a couple of times but always started prewriting months in advance. I think part of the point is that we writerly types rarely have trouble or need an excuse to think about the stories we want to write (which is mostly what prewriting is to me; I write down very little) but it's sometimes hard to actually sit and put the stupid thing on paper! :) How would you even define what "prewriting" is for a story? For some of mine, germs of characters and ideas began years before I actually began to work on it; hence, I think, the emphasis on the writing itself. In that respect, I can see how NaNo definitely serves its purpose for some writers in giving them an excuse to make their writing a priority. That's how I always found it worked for me.

      The 50K is just the requirement for that month; the story can, of course, be longer, as long as one wants. Nor do I think that the assumption of publication is necessarily relevant, since a lot of people do write fan fiction or just for their own enjoyment; the idea that everything done in fannish or online writing communities should be done with the assumption that the writer will want to publish in major markets someday is one of my pet peeves, incidentally! :) One of the things I do appreciate about NaNo is that all writers are welcomed.

      There was a huge fad for a few years that is finally fading a little of people being encouraged to write surprise-a-minute urgent physical action, claiming it is needed to hook a reader. That reader was never me.

      Me neither. I don't know if it's how my brain is wired--I am very low on spatial intelligence so fight scenes and the like don't generate any sort of visual image for me; it's just a mess of words without much meaning--or if it's just plain preference, but I need something more than action to hook me, whether a story or a movie or just about anything. I'm with you that I have to care about the people before I can give a crap about what's happening to them.

      As with_rainfall noted in the comment above--and I totally agree--there needs to be emotion for a story to work. I don't see how car chases and battles and worlds colliding, in and of themselves, provide any sort of emotional connection to the people they involve.
  • I am rarely a plot person either-- I mean some of my stories do have plots, but that's only an excuse to explore the characters. A good many of my stories have no plot at all and are just vignettes, slices of life or character studies.

    Good characters will always keep me reading, even if the plot's full of holes. I can't say vice-versa.
    • I think most stories are a bit of both. And I think to sustain a longer story, plot is essential as well, but it should grow from the people rather than the other way around. Even a character study usually has some plot, I think! :) It's just not earth-shattering, but if you care about the person in the piece, that split grocery bag suddenly matters! :)
  • 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

    This is so true. I have mentioned to other people that if an author who is skilled in characterization were to write an entire story that had two people sitting in a room talking, I would be engrossed. I have read many stories (both fanfic and original fiction) where the people get propelled through a series of dramatic events, and all I feel is boredom. Since the characters took second place to the plot, they were not developed enough for me to care about them. For me, those stories fail.

    I start with people rather than plot.

    It started with a person for me. My main OC. In the days when I was unaware of fanfic I role-played for many years. I virtually always rp-d original characters because I wrote o-fic and it was second-nature. I looked at many different rp sites over the years, and one day was just looking at the home-page of one, wondering if I should join it. The image was, I think, of Mount Doom, and I suddenly had a story fall on me, but it was the story of a character. The plot was there, but the character and what he was like, was vivid. It was the person that interested me.

    I was thinking about what drew me to certain fanfic stories, and came down to the 'people'. Whether the story is set in the Years of the Trees or post War of the Ring, it's never the plot, it's how the people live through the events of the plot.

    I am in the middle of writing two long stories which do have a plot, but my purpose in writing them was to fill in a gap of 25 years in my series. I knew I would come back to it and be able to wallow in it a little. I could cut it, yes, but I wanted to write the gapfiller stories to concentrate on the people rather than the plot. (There is one, but I am in no hurry to rush to the conclusion).

    Edited at 2012-04-19 05:46 am (UTC)
  • I think for me, the Tolkien fanfic started mostly with a desire to see a certain type of person (medical types) depicted as something other than a cardboard cutout - not the stereotypical plaster saint or the cardboard unfeeling person, because I didn't recognize them. In over two decades in health care (if you count med school), I'd never met those folks. I'd met the person who seemed gruff because he was going through his third divorce, and the person who seemed like he cared but really just wanted to pay off his student loans, and a whole host of others, but I'd never met these cardboard people I saw in fic and wanted to rectify that.

    So I totally agree with your example about the grocery bag. The events in a story may be cool/interesting, but they're not going to grab me on a gut level unless they happen to people I care about. I think that's harder for some writers than it is for others - it can be really uncomfortable to climb into someone else's head and live there long enough that you can write a character convincingly. I think it's a hard thing to do if you have difficulty relating to others, too - I think there needs to be a certain amount of empathy and of wondering why it is that other people behave the way they do. Stories where I feel like I'm observing from the outside are ones that I don't find as compelling as the ones where I'm sucked right into the story.
  • My point was more about where my stories arise from: They arise from character, not plot. The plot that develops is incidental to the characterization rather than the other way around.

    The story that has been floating around in my head is the first one where the characters have been forward and pushy but their plot has been hard to pin down. As a result, I'm enjoying getting to know my characters and seeing where their lives will lead my plot within some very loose guidelines of location and timeframes. I was worrying about whether the story might be strong enough to stand on its own, but your synopsis offered makes me feel more confident.

    Allowing your characters free reign to run wildly through the field of flowers, trampling where they will and rolling down the hills is hard, but I think necessary.

    This is your second posting on the topic of writing and I'm finding that your words have such incredible value to me. I'm very grateful that you decided to take this on.

    - Erulisse (one L)
  • The more I think about the stories I like, the more I realise that I tend to tolerate plot as long as it allows the characters to show or develop their, well, character; however, I'll just as happily take "nothing in particular happens" plot if I care about the characters.
    If I don't care about the characters, the most elaborate, most exciting plot and the most painstaking worldbuilding can't move me. (That may be part of why I so dislike ASoIaF, come to think of it: I can't stand any of the characters and find only three of them at least mildly interesting, so why should I give a damn about what happens to them?) Well, mostly can't move me. I do like fairytales and the old epics for what they are. I don't think they're stellar storytelling in a modern sense, though.
    It may also be why Chaucer and Shakespeare so stand out, in contrast to the people whose stories they shamelessly plagiarised used for inspiration: They added a level of character that just wasn't there in (say) Bocaccio or Kyd.
    And of course, there's my beloved Sir Gawain: Oh sure, lovely poetry and an intriguing plot, but the most fascinating part seems to be Gawain's spiritual journey and growth as a character. (Oh God, stop me from writing another essay on that topic...)

    During B2MeM (probably due to the massive amount of different stories I started in a relatively short time), I noticed that I'm neither properly a character writer nor a plot writer. What comes easiest to me (which is not to say that I do it well, but that I can produce a lot of it quickly) is dialogue writing. I've previously written stories that were almost entirely based on dialogue (to the point that any descriptive parts in between felt intrusive and unnatural, WTF), but now it became kind of overwhelming. (In my most recent WiP, Celegorm and Finrod are talking about beekeeping... for five and a half pages in OOW, with only a brief interlude of - surprise! - dialogue with another character. *facepalm*)
    I suppose that plays into character writing to some extent, too, though: It's hard to have lots of plot in dialogue (particularly if you're supposed to show, not tell, yadda yadda), but you can certainly put a lot of characterisation into dialogue...
    (Still, I know I'm overdoing it. If I ever get around to editing all my B2MeM WiPs, I have to fill in a lot of stuff that isn't dialogue. If only for the sake of NOT making "said" the most frequently used word! ;))



    Edited at 2012-04-19 01:22 pm (UTC)
    • Dialog is the ultimate way to transmit character for me. I grow weary of too much internal monologue (lately been writing quite a bit of that myself and worrying about it too--can anyone read this?).
      • True enough! I'm not a fan of too much internal monologue, either. But I'm producing so much dialogue that I'm growing weary of it, too. Interspersing bits of description in between the "he said" and "she said" just isn't enough; at some point, people have to stop TALKING and things have to start HAPPENING, for Eru's sake!

        (Of course, in this age of post-post-modernism, I could probably write a whole book purely in dialogue and get away with it. But that's not the point. ^^)
  • Am I going to be the weird one out? So far everyone is strongly in the Character camp, and while I can certainly say that my story is more character-driven than plot-driven, I'm not sure it started out that way. The origins for my first Tolkien fic were two Orc names from a name generator, and a persistent plotbunny about a little girl being captured by Orcs. So does that mean I came up with the plot or the characters first? The genesis for both were there, sketched in the vaguest of terms. The plot was more premise than plot, and the characters were few and had no personalities attached to them. But I started writing, and the characters became real, and I got to know where the story was going, although it is taking its own sweet time getting there.

    In my story the characters have a lot of "down time." There are some adventure elements (OMG! they're fighting eagles! OMG! they're attacking a village!) but most of the time they're mucking around by the fire, or gathering firewood, or digging a latrine. Frankly, the story is due for some plot-plot, but the character-plot has been going on all along: watching the characters interact, the tensions between them, their private loyalties or antipathies, their own quiet goals. But I didn't know many of those things until I started writing.
    • I dunno, that sounds much like my experience. I don't plan the characters in advance (aside from basic points like name, profession, purpose in the story) - if anything, I outline the basic events of the story. But in the writing, the story tends to deviate a lot from that outline: the events still tend to happen at some point or another, but there's a lot of "mucking about" in between that was never planned but does help to define the characters. I think it's normal not to know these things in advance, though. Ideally, the characters really develop as the story progresses, in the head of the writer as much as on the page, I think.
  • In a word: yes.

    RAFA started off with a simple question: what if Maglor returned to Valinor? The rest of it is quite simply driven by the characters, because it's all about how people react to him and how he reacts himself.

    And this may partially explain my aversion to outlining-- I don't know how the characters will react to things, so I can't (and don't want to) force them into it. The stories are about them, after all.
  • You've given me an idea for the wording of a Disclaimer post for my next piece of Silm fic:
    "Mount Everest by Tolkien, split grocery bags by Himring."
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