A different way to look at plot and character
by Austin Wiggins
I’ve talked about the structure of plot in a previous article, Writing Tips: Science and Six Plots, and so instead of delving further into structure, the intention of this article is to explore the relationship of plot and character and whatever nuance may arise from these two concepts. I’ve come to this topic as a part of a larger inquiry into English and literature in which I am seeking to understand the function of ideas and concepts embedded within written and spoken language. As such, I finally found a reason to read Aristotle’s Poetics which ultimately inspired the topic of this post.
The first question that demands an answer is if there is even a relationship between plot and character in the first place. I answer definitively that there is, and I’ll explain with an example. Let’s start with the classic Lord of the Rings by Tolkien and the character Frodo Baggins (I’ll be relying on my knowledge of the movies instead of the novels but the point remains the same). Frodo is your classic reluctant hero who lacks more in brawn and might than most of the others he finds himself the company in. It is through his struggle with fear and battling with it at each step of the way, in other words it is his bravery, that he is able to, at last, deliver the ring to its destruction. Assuming the initial plot point that Gandalf had to take the ring from Bilbo Baggins, Frodo’s uncle, because of his ring-mania is the same, if Gandalf were to give the ring to Samwise, it is safe to say the plot would be different that as it was written. Samwise and Frodo, despite being kindred spirits, possess different traits which would have changed the nature of the conflict throughout the story arch.
I used this same method of character replacement in other stories, Harry Potter, Bob’s Burgers, Love in the Time of Cholera to name a few and list the variety, and each time I experienced a fundamental change of the plot. In doing this initial thought experiment I neglected to consider character driven writing and plot driven writing.
As it goes, character-driven and plot-driven stories are the two categories of the nature of plot (I’m using “nature” here to differentiate plot structure which I’ve talked about in the article I mentioned at the start). In stories driven by character, the character(s) personality, traits, characteristics, methods of interaction, and etc. command the forefront of the material, and the plot structure, being subservient to character, is either simple or non-linear. The opposite of this is the plot-driven story, where the tangle of plot takes precedence. We expect to see these sorts of plots in mysteries and action movies, where tension from the events and the relation of one event to another becomes the main intrigue.
The model above and the others like it are are depictions of gaunt connections wherein one element becomes subservient to the other, and therefore makes one wonder what the characteristics of the next order of magnitude would be. *Insightful comments*
The best model I can compare a new relationship between character and plot is the dynamic between skilled improvisational jazz musicians. The danger of using this comparison is that it would make it seem like I’m advocating for a free-for-all approach to narrative, but to counter that I say to look instead at the interactions between the artists instead of the seemingly non-linear content they end up producing. Between the musicians (and within the root of whatever song they might riff off of) you’ll find motifs that one musician will take off with and modify and then the next musician will do the same. Even when a musician is improving solo, she’ll take motifs from the song and run with them and/or play off other elements within the song. It is in large part the same dynamic that remixes play off of, which in turn play on the same concepts that montages employ.
What we’re left with is a haphazard visualization of what narrative can be, so let me attempt to make it more concrete. What I’m speaking of is a possible evolution of literary works where plot and character take inspiration from one other and grow in unison. Instead of preferring character based stories or plot based stories, it’s weaving the essences, the volatile and dynamic characters and the plot lines and intrigue that drive our craving for complex social dealings, and thrust them together. Perhaps what this will leave us with is a vibrant account of whatever slice(s) of human life that we try to capture.
This post previously appeared on Writings by Ender.