Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Writing Fiction: Driven by Character or Plot?

Honoré Daumier's Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Two Characters in Quest of a Plot
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, as I was preparing my lesson for today's literature class, I came upon an interesting passage on the role of "character" in stories:
Although the average reader may consider plot the basic element of fiction, writers often remark that stories begin with characters. They imagine a certain person and then wait to see what that character will do. "By the time I write a story," remarked Katherine Anne Porter, "my people are up and alive and walking around and taking things into their own hands." The action of a story usually grows out of the personality of its protagonist and the situation he or she faces. As critic Phyllis Bottome observed, "If a writer is true to his characters they will give him his plot." (X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (New York: Pearson, 2006), 82)
This contrasts with a point about character versus plot made by a contemporary writer, Olen Steinhauer, whom I have gotten to know online and have occasionally blogged about. In a blog entry of mine titled "Plotting Character" (May 11, 2006), I noted that Olen, who blogs at Contemporary Nomad with three other published writers, tells of learning a fact about fiction from his own experience -- but also 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!"
Upon hearing O'Brien's views, Olen confessed:
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.
So, who's right? Kennedy and Gioia? Or O'Brien and Steinhauer?

We don't have to choose, of course. For some writers, character offers the key to writing. For others writers, plot shows the way to write.

Back when I was writing short stories for Morse Hamilton's creative writing class, I composed them as riffs on character, writing quickly and letting my story be led wherever the characters wanted to go. My approach was the literary equivalent of playing jazz, I guess.

My poems have generally developed the same way, though usually not led by character -- unless the character is the poetic voice that takes over a poem as I write it, which is perhaps what happens in lyrical poetry.

But I wonder what happens in epic poetry. Did Milton follow his characters or his plot? Satan's rough character, or God's omniscient plan?



At 12:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always been big on plot and a little weak on characters. Pretty much any critique of my creative writing mentions this. I don't appreciate how I am often made to feel inferior because my characters play second fiddle to my carefully crafted plots. Yes, it is true that I could stand to work on my characters, and that doing so would make a better story, but I don't think my characters need to be walking around like real people before I can think about writing.

On the other hand, I'm not ready to say that deriving plot from character is wrong. My take is that both are valid ways of writing, and which way you choose depends on both your preferences and your skills. I think it is counterproductive to say that plot-from-character is flat out wrong. It may be wrong from my perspective, but that doesn't mean it is wrong from everyone's perspective.

I don't think the question of plot-from-character and character-from-plot should be treated as a zero-sum game. I'm more of a "live and let live" type. Just go with what works for you, and don't let anyone tell you that you're "doing it wrong."

(Confession: like Olen, it does drive me batty when people refer to their characters as if they were real people--as if they had minds of their own and did things that the author didn't expect. That's called "inspiration," people, and despite the etymology of the word, it's all you--not some mysterious muse or other divine force. To externalize this inspiration ignores the power of human creativity. But hey, if you want to think of your characters as real people who do things of their own volition, more power to you. It may drive me to drink, but I'm not going to tell you that you're wrong to do it. Although I may, uh, rant about it on my site and in the comments of other people's sites.)

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ranting? What ranting? I don't see any ranting. Let me tell you about ranting...

Nah, you've probably heard enough on it already.

I was always weak on plot as something worked out beforehand and have always admired people who can craft a plot in advance. "How do they do it?" I wonder.

Actually ... how do you do it?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:23 PM, Blogger Olen Steinhauer said...

Glad you brought up this perennial subject again, Jeffery. It's still on my mind as I fashion and refashion a storyline out of the 80,000 words I've presently got.

Only thing I'd add to these thoughts is that the distinction between plot-character, even for someone who writes the way I do, gets pretty hazy. For example, while I don't start with fully fleshed out and fully-biographied characters, I also don't start with a full plot--just a few scenes and directions. Rather than story springing from characters, or characters springing wholy from plot, the act of writing itself seems to be directing so much. Which is why I've got 80,000 words of decent storyline (and characters) that in the end I'm probably going to have to re-edit down to 60,000 and then rewrite in order to make a workable story. And this is after having written a previous 80,000 that I entirely threw away!

The process isn't usually this messy and wasteful, but it's always so much more messy and wasteful than those who, say, outline ahead of time. I wonder now if it's more important (for novel-length works) to know your characters beforehand if you have to write a detailed outline at the start...? Otherwise, if you have characters and "just write", you've got a bunch of fully formed people in a room, not doing very much at all until the plot device (the gun in the drawer) raises its ugly head.

At 9:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm told that Isaac Asimov had the entire story in his head by the time that he actually sat down to write it.

I find that impressive, but I never could get interested in an Asimov story.

Perhaps there's a messy, jazzy way of writing regardless of whether one begins with character or with plot, and maybe the spontaneity in that sort of writing appeals to my sensibilities.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:47 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Here's a quotation attributed to Nabokov that I've always enjoyed:

"That trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills. My characters are galley slaves."

I'll offer my humble opinion as a reader, rather than a writer, of fiction. I do think the interaction between plot and character is complicated and sometimes "hazy," but in questions like this, I always side with plot, simply because I think plot is the underdog in "serious fiction" these days.

At 6:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, KM, for reminding me of that Nabokov quote.

I haven't written enough fiction to speak authoritatively about the experience of creating characters who either escape or remain enthralled, but from writing poetry, I can say that in the act of composition, poems can go unexpected places, and the experience of this can be rather mysterious -- which may indicate where the notion of "inspiration" comes from.

But I wouldn't say that the poem gets out of hand. It remains controlled, especially if one uses meter and rhyme.

Otherwise, one ends up like Whitman at his worst -- ranting in long lists of things...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Nabokov quote. I agree wholeheartedly--my characters toil beneath the stinging lash of my whip.

As for "how do they do it," or how I do it, I usually start out with what I think of as a "story seed." It is a little granule of an idea, often in the form of a "what if" question, that has the potential to blossom into a full-grown plot. I tend to work a lot of fantastic elements into my stories, so a story seed for me might be something like: "what if there was a book, and everything you wrote in this book actually happened?" (This was my story seed for last year's NaNoWriMo novel, by the way.) Not a terribly original idea, I will admit, but it is enough to get me thinking. Then it's just a matter of answering that question and coming up with new questions to further the story. "How would the protag find such a book?" From this question I work out the background--it turns out the protag's father is one of the old NYC bookseller's on 4th Avenue, one of the last holdouts of the old Book Row. "If this book is really that powerful, then someone is going to be after it." From this I begin to work on the conflict. And so on and so forth. I won't bore you with the entire process I went through for this particular seed, because I thought about it for months.

Eventually I will reach a point where the seed has blossomed into a fledgling plot, and if I feel this plot is viable I will continue shaping it in my head. I do not plan out the entire story in advance. Usually what happens is I get to the climax and then can't figure out how the story is going to end. So I start writing, revising the plot along the way if necessary, and at some point before the climax the pieces usually fall into place. It's a leap of faith, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Even when it does work, I often find myself struggling with endings.

Anyway, that's the way I do it, in brief.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Charles, for the detailed explanation, which is the sort of thing that I need to hear in advance for whenever I get around to creative fictional writing again ... though a certain Geoff Hudson (who maintains a website on the issue) thinks that I am a sock puppet for the biblical scholar Jeffrey Gibson and thus that I am already writing fiction anyway.

Would that I were really that creative already!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:52 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

Appropriate that I just finished teaching an Asimov story . . .

To what extent is the character/plot dichotomy a delineation in our imagination? What is a person without her story? What is an experience without someone to experience it? Do you suppose musicians quibble about putting the melody before the chords?

At 1:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessica, perhaps the distinction for writers lies in what motivates them -- a character's quirk or a plot's problem.

If stories grow from a kernal, then one could begin with either character or plot.

No writer could ever neglect one or the other, of course, for as soon as one starts developing, the other is dragged along.

Still, we know by experience that some writers have strong characters but weak plots and other writers have weak characters but strong plots.

So, I think that one can make distinctions.

As for music, I'm afraid that I grew up without learning enough to speak intelligently on the question that you posed.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:52 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Which came first? Chicken? Egg? Horse? Cart? Plot=driven? Character-driven?

Don't know about the first 4, but the last 2 questions should be a lock-in-place "given." Provide an automatic answer.

It's plot. Pure and simple. Readers pick up a book to discover a story. Then, Step 2 comes into play: Characters who embellish, enlighten, and entertain are introduced, thus making the story a memorable one (hopefully). It's the plot-fomented action and reaction that molds character.

--Jack Payne

At 5:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jack Payne, thanks for the comment. I suspect that some writers start with plot, others with character, so the answer to the question posed depends upon which writer answers.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:05 AM, Blogger writtenwyrdd said...

Excellent points! As a genre writer (speculative fiction) I find that although I like the stories that are on the surface character driven, e.g. the character's choices drive the plot, it is the plot elements themselves that form the story framework. You'd have zero story without plot!

It is amusing that the discussion of writing can become fraught with definitions that become shaded and divided until they are essentially meaningless. Is it self-importance? I don't know, but I suspect it's the very human tendency to want to show how smart we are--to ourselves and to others.

The problem with discussing The Writing ad nauseum is that it is confusing to neophytes! Again, perhaps that is the point. Don't look behind the curtain, and all that.

But writing is about the story, and the story is based on the plot.

I'll have to link here; you have some great posts!

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

WrittenWyrdd, thanks for your comments. I am happy that you found this blog useful . . . even though I don't always write about fiction.

I'll take a look at your blog soon.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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