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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories Discusses

Plotting and Characterization

Dario Ciriello’s “On Plotting” appears in this issue.

[Bill Bowler] Dario’s essay is quite interesting and informative. The topic is fundamental to our field. I’m pretty much with him all the way, until the last sentence: “So, in the end, there really is no such thing as plot as a cause or driver: plot is simply the result of character and will in motion.”

I would modify the conclusion just a bit. There is such a thing as plot as driver, though other elements drive the story as well. Character and will in motion are good ways to create plot, but there are other ways, as in The Perils of Pauline. No need to be categorical. Whatever works.

In the end, the strength of the story probably depends on the balance and interaction of elements, and the less mechanical and contrived they are, the better.

[Don Webb] I quite agree, Bill. The only question I would have is: How do we know what “works” and what doesn’t?

[Gary Inbinder] Blog posting: “The Character’s the Thing

[John Stocks] Very interesting indeed. Love the idea —the suggestion of the fictional character soliciting the author... Turgenev’s fiction almost always began “with the vision of some person or persons who hovered before him, soliciting him, as the active or passive figure, interesting him and appealing to him just as they were and by what they were.”

I am always fascinated by the idea that the life of a fictional character can have more emotional resonance, leave more of a ‘footprint’ than that of many flesh and blood humans. Some interesting ethical discussions inevitably follow.

[Don] Fictional characters that could pass for real people are few and far between, John. One that comes to mind is Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, in Le Rouge et le noir.

And I agree with John about your essay, Gary... I would observe only that Hamlet is about Hamlet.

Claudius and Hamlet’s father are the premise or pretext for what transpires after Hamlet sees the ghost or — in terms of modern realism — subconsciously realizes what must have happened to his father.

The important thing is that characters be consistent with themselves. If Hamlet slays Claudius in the first Act, that would make him a loyal son, all right, but also a thoughtless thug. Shakespeare envisioned quite a different character.

Hamlet is in a way an anti-Oedipus. He shares Oedipus’ curiosity, but that’s where it ends. Hamlet has none of Oedipus’ complacency and recklessness. Unlike Oedipus, who says in effect, “Up yours, Oracle. I’ll kill whom I please and marry whom I want,” Hamlet is cautious to a fault.

Hamlet would have no desire to accompany Oedipus on adventurous travels, and Oedipus would have no patience with Hamlet’s introspection and cautious scheming. But both are entirely self-consistent.

And yet plot — in the sense of a sequence of events — must have a similar consistency all its own. Just today I had to critique a submission in which two characters say mutually contradictory things about what is going on. Now, conflicting perceptions might be interesting, but they weren’t in this case; the plot was just logically incoherent, and the author couldn’t have it both ways.

Character and plot may be two poles of tension in the process of composition, each supporting and constraining the other.

Dario says something about characterization that raises practical questions:

I thought long and hard about my principal characters, wrote little bios for them, made up backstory; most important of all, I worked hard at understanding their conscious and subconscious goals and motivations, hopes and fears, and the relationships between the protagonists. I did the same for the antagonists.

And then Dario drew up not an outline but “a very loose plot exoskeleton,” which seems to echo, after a fashion, what Gary says coincidentally about there being many ways to go from Chicago to L.A. or vice-versa.

In practical terms, then, a formal plot outline is replaced by extensive character outlines. My first question is: What difference does it make? Isn’t that six of one, half a dozen of the other?

My second question follows from the first: Does such careful characterization before the fact leave any room for the characters to grow? A writer doesn’t want to treat his characters like so many chess pieces; Dario makes that point quite forcefully. And yet even on a chessboard a pawn may be promoted to a queen or any other major piece if it reaches the eighth rank.

A story, then, is like a chessboard on which the pieces — namely the characters — do not change color but do gradually change shape in the course of the game. I would suggest, then, that the equivalent of an encyclopedic knowledge of openings and end games may be more useful to a critic than to a writer composing a story.

It seems to me, rather, that a writer need not necessarily take copious notes beforehand. Once the characters are thought through and are firmly in mind, the writer can analyze any position at a glance and say, with grandmaster Emanuel Lasker, “I think only one move ahead. But it’s always the best move.”

Copyright © 2012 by Bewildering Stories

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