Thursday, May 11, 2006

Plotting Character...

Johannes van Loon, Scenographia systematis mvndani Ptolemaici (1660)
From: Andreas Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica, 1660/61
(Borrowed from Wikipedia)

The novelist Olen Steinhauer, who blogs at Contemporary Nomad with three other published writers, tells of learning a fact about fiction from experience, and from the novelist Tim O'Brien, who insists that:
"Stories are about plot. Only about plot. Nothing else. They're not about character. Characters exist only to serve the plot. They have no other reason to exist!"

... I was immensely relieved. He was voicing something I never felt comfortable saying aloud in my grad school classes, where everyone went on about their characters as if they were real people.

... I find myself continually making notes to alter the characters who have come before. As the story unfolds -- that is, as I learn more about the story I'm telling -- I find out that the character who existed earlier just won't satisfy the needs for this later part of the story. I sometimes alter my expectations of the story, but within severe limits. Because the plot -- even when I'm still figuring it out -- is the master, and the characters must bow to it.

... [O]thers deal with character differently, and they come up with fantastic results. But having spent so much time in school being taught the maxim that "plot springs from character", I think it's worth mentioning that I've found this to be wrong. For me, characters spring from a story, and almost (because nothing in the craft of writing is absolute) never the other way around.
I find Olen's remarks to be very useful as I reflect on the craft of writing, the art of literary analysis, and the science of literary theory. But I'm not up to analyzing all three of these today (got that conference to prepare for).

I do, however, have time and inclination to offer this observation: If character springs from plot, then it does so because writers don't know what they need from a character until the story tells them what it needs.

In principle, a character may have an indefinitely large range of qualities, but why incorporate them to the story if adding them adds nothing to the story and likely distracts from it?

When I compose on this blog an anecdote about some odd thing that happened to me, I don't pack in all of the details of character, most of which would simply add nothing but distractions. I leave out any- and everything that gets in the way of the storytelling.

This doesn't imply that a plot should take the reader from point A to point B as quickly as possible. If that were so, no story would need be written -- just give the plot spoiler and get it over with!

No, the craft of writing lies in heightening the reader's interest by the occasional delay -- the excursus, the odd but useful fact, the flashback that reveals character to advance the plot.

A story thus moves like the erring planets of the pre-Copernican cosmos, in eccentric, epicyclic passages of periodically retrograde motions that ultimately bring about a regular but not entirely predictable closure.

The old astronomers called it saving the phenomena...


At 9:58 AM, Blogger Sir G said...

I think that all of art can be divided (on purely aesthetic grounds) into the story oriented stuff (of which detective stories and action dramas are the quintessential exponents) and the aesthetic stuff -- the stuff which does not care what happened but rather lets us get into other people's heads: shows us what it is like to be, say, a middle aged Japanese court lady dumped by a lover and grieving and then waking up in the morning and finding out that it has snowed at night. The former is all about action, the latter all about -- well, character, I guess. In some sense, philosophy suffers the same division: there is your analytical stuff (all about truth and rules of inference) and the existentialist stuff (how crappy i feel in a world in which God is dead, etc.)

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

I believe in a Newtonian literary world, where characters create their own fields of energy. I highly recommend Stephen King's representation of this argument in his book On Writing. A very good read, and I'm not a King fan.

As for connection to blogging, doesn't it all boil down to character? Unless you have a master plan in mind and are slowly laying the foundations of inciting action--to which I've been oblivious--it's the character/author/narrator/blogger persona who draws me back.

At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, there are many different models you can use depending on the story you want to write. Sometimes you can make your characters around your plot, sometimes your characters make the plot. Sometimes I find that thinking about it in the terms of plot and characters is entirely useless; you end up redefining "what is plot" and "what is a character" to the point where no one but the writer can keep track of what is happening anymore.

When I was in college they talked about "genre fiction" and "character-driven fiction" as the two divisions. They are just models to assist the writer and reader but they should be avoided as soon as they complicate the story more than they assist analysis.

If plot over character works for your story, well, great. It's an approach that leads to some truly awful amateur fiction, but if the writer can think about it this way without producing crap, I don't see the problem.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, this post certainly received excellent, thoughtful responses, more than I can deal with in my current time constraints.

So, allow me to concede that I exaggerated plot over character. I accept (as does Olen) that some writers work more from character.

Gawain, your point about detective stories is perceptive, for Olen writes Cold War narratives about espionage (and I haven't yet read his work, just his blog entries).

Jessica -- and this applies to John as well -- I choose to reveal (or reconstuct) aspects of my own character based on the needs of my anecdote, so in a story from my childhood in which all four of my brothers were present, I might leave some out because they attenuate the story, which requires concentrated tension to work.

A blog doesn't require a master plan, but it develops a logic of action that drives it along.

Let me give a different example. Suppose that I decide to write my autobiography. What drives that? One might think that character does. Maybe it can, but couldn't the motive force be the plot? We don't know where we're going until we reach the place, but when we look back over our lives, we see a narrative -- even if the way in which we frame it is partly of our choosing.

But this is my point. The story that we choose to tell about our lives reveals what we want revealed and hides what we want hidden.

For example, I never realized what a 'troublemaker' I was until I started writing this blog and telling stories that revealed something of myself to me. If the persona revealed were too problematic, I just wouldn't tell that particular story (and there are stories that I won't tell here ... or anywhere), but the stories come first.

In truth, I think that I was less of a troublemaker than these little stories suggest, but a troublemaker persona is what emerges from the plots.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...


This is a *really* interesting subject. I was also someone who would have felt very uncomfortable admitting my love of plot to anyone I knew in grad school, because the prevailing view seemed to be that plots belonged in the ghettoes of genre fiction.

I wrote a long and typically incoherent post on this subject a while ago. I did manage to find a great quotation from Philip Pullman, which I included in the post:

"[I]n adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult readers who do deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship. But stories are vital. Stories never fail us, because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, 'events never grow stale.' There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy. [Contemporary writers, however,] take up their stories as with a pair of tongs. They're embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do."

I do think there's a complex negotiation between plot and character, but I also tend to think that plot is the trunk and characters are the branches -- so I'm fascinated by what appears to be the devaluation of plot among some readers and writers of "serious" fiction.

At 10:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find that when I write short stories (and screenplays) plot tends to come first and the charcters serve it. With longer works, characters tend to come first and their personalities drive the plot because it's the decisions the characters make that ultimately affect what happens to them and how the plot unfolds. For me, the plot changes from what I had intended originally more than the characters.

What you said about leaving out details in the interest of advancing story is very true and important, but the writer still knows those details and they inform the characters' decisions and actions even if they are never explicitly revealed.

I agree with Jessica's point about being drawn back by character. As an example, I'll use To Kill a Mockingbird since it's the last book I read. I keep turning the pages not because I want to know how the town deals with the trial but because I really like listening to Scout tell the story. I enjoy her voice and her sense of humor.

Perhaps this all sounds flaky as hell, but that's how it works for me.


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