Plot versus character? This can only ever be a bitter, brutal battle to the death in which character always loses and slumps bleeding to the floor. But how character loses, and why, involves a sufficient number of aspects of the writers manual that it is worthy of further investigation. Let's take an example: say we have a character, let's call her Faith, and lets take a plot, and let's call him Plot. Actually, on second thoughts, we can't do that. Plot can't be a character, it's just plot. So what is plot, and what is character? And why can they not get on together?
To understand this we have to go back a while, back nearly two and a half thousand years in fact to the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who presented his thoughts on these matters in the mighty Poetics. Aristotle, incidentally, believed in the supremacy of plot. Stories, in contrast to, say, the episodic histories, should possess "all the organic unity of a living creature". Stories should be based on a single action with a beginning, middle, and an end. This contrast is interesting. Aristotle goes on to explain how histories have to deal with the whole sweep of an era which while it may, in the grand scheme of things, contain a beginning, middle and end have to be portrayed more, well, poetically.
Histories must be conveyed or portrayed, to be exact, by picking out the most gripping and exciting. Furthermore, the poet (a word so much better than the jobbing term writer) can relate events that occurred simultaneously one after the other if it serves the purpose of conveying the essence of the history. In other words, say the sea-fight off Salamis and the battle with the Carthaginians in Sicily capture either took place at the same time or even if the happened one after the other with no direct connection, the poet may choose to ignore this to "relieve the uniformity of his narrative". This is clearly the work of a man who knew how to tell a story...
So, now we have established that either we tell a story; simple, organic and complete. Or, we describe an epic; episodic and grand, with great set-pieces capturing the essence of the history. Where does this leave Faith, waiting patiently in the wings, or plot for that matter, looming menacingly over her ready to move her forwards to the next tragic episode. For many centuries this would have been Faith's fate. The Aristotelian model was very much of the tragedy as a formal sequence of events presented by a relatively anonymous actor who served to represent action and life rather than actual human beings. Such anonymity would not have seemed so stilted we might imagine as the character would have been presented when enacting the tragic steps against the backdrop of the chorus acting as a unified whole themselves.
To come in to her own, Faith, would have to have waited a couple of millennia until the Restoration era not least because the character might even be portrayed by a woman. Although her femininity would have been 'hidden' beneath knee breaches, the salacious and risque repartee would have been to the fore. We say 'hidden' as the crude device of dressing actresses in the male garb of the day would only have served to emphasise the differences from both the male actors and the women in the audience. But what is the purpose of drama if not to provoke the audience in to questioning their experience of the real world that they have temporarily left behind?
And what of plot, what does he get up to while the provocative Faith is projecting new dimensions of individuality and originality to the familiar roles? Plot, I fear, still looms large. Faith may triumph or Faith may flounder, however her destiny would surely be well and truly set in stone, locked within the inherited constraints of medieval legends, morality plays and social class.
When I said earlier that plot would triumph and and our character, Faith, would surely meet her inexorable fate, I lied. With little sympathy, or even empathy, for the robust but firm ministering of the ominous plot, Faith has grown in her own strength, asserted her independence and realised her inner depths of character against all of the odds.
Where does that leave us? Well, knowing that the demise of plot has been a long and protracted decline over the millenia can help us in both our sympathy and opportunism... Plot is clearly important, a solid and dependable mechanism that drives our stories forward. However, increasingly, what looks the same like scrunched up magazine might be a rolled up manifesto with a clear mission to deliver the important life-changing message that he has just been asked to deliver...
Don't touch that dial!
Stephen blogs regularly about writing-related matters in this fast moving digital landscape on the key issues that matter to writers and and those interested in writing. Screen writing is a particular focus with regular tips and advice on story, character and plot matters. e-books and e-book readers are changing the way we consume and collect books and there is much to say about how this is changing our world. Thoughtful, comprehensive and always provocative and stimulating.
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