Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thoughts On Plot 4: Uncovering Character And Setting

There's an argument as to whether our natures are due to nature or nurture -- to our genetic inheritance or our environment. The argument, like many of these old standards, is bullshit. Our natures are due to our genes expressing themselves in the context of our environment -- you can't divide the influences. They're holographic.

So with that thought in mind, here's a new definition of plot to chew on -- plot is the result of a character expressing itself in the context of its setting and circumstances.

When I first ran across this notion it made perfect sense to me. My response was to develop a character, make up the setting, figure out some circumstances which would bring the character into conflict, and then let things work out.

This isn't a bad way to start a story.

Here are some thoughts on creating the character. The most important question you need to answer about your character is what do they want? Hell, it's the only important question. You don't need to answer it right at the beginning -- but you do need to keep it in mind. Without a driving need (or some facet of their person that drives others -- see below) a character isn't going to be all that useful to you.

A mistake that I've made and that I've seen over and over again is that of making a passive observer the main character. This almost never ends well. The character sulks in his room and ponders and no matter how well-written it is, it's as dull as dogshit.

The only really effective way out of this one that I've seen is to take that passive observer and give him a kick in the butt. Force him out of his safe place. Get him into trouble. This worked in The Phantom Tollbooth. It worked in A Confederacy of Dunces. It works in just about all of M.R. James's ghost stories.

The reason it works is that it removes the character's passivity. Like it or not, your character cannot be passive.

Unless, of course, their presence in some way stimulates another character -- Bartleby the Scrivener is a good example of this. Being There is another good example of a passive character around whom conflicts swirl. Only use passivity when it stimulates conflict.

Just remember, no trouble, no story. Ain't no way to delay that trouble coming every day.

Okay, a few thoughts on character creation. A lot of people place a great deal of importance on backstory, on knowing how their character grew up, what their favorite soda is, etc, etc. If this works for you, great. There have been times when this approach has served me well.

But I've found that an intuitional approach is the best for me. If I can see the character, if I can hear their voice, if I know how they'll react to a situation, then I'm good. By allowing them some privacy from me, I'm also allowing them to surprise me. The only reason working out backstory has ever been useful to me has been that it can bring you closer to that kind of grip on a character -- it's meaningless in itself. At least that's how it works for me. Look for the character, listen to the character, let the character explain themselves to you. Act as though the characters are real and you're just observing them.

Of course one of the reasons that works out for me is that I'm a character in most of what I've written. What can I say, I make a good pulp character. By putting myself directly into the viewpoint position it's easier for me to interact with my marginally-more imaginary characters. I do this and then they do that and then I do this. I'm going to study acting at some point and I'm certain it will give me some useful techniques for this kind of projection.

Now the first question you need to ask about the setting is, how does it affect the characters? And again, it's the only really important question. If the setting doesn't help to drive or ground the story, then it's no good. In a story with action/adventure elements you want an environment that provides a variety of physical challenges for your character. In a character-driven story you want settings that both establish and reflect the inner life of your characters. Don't any setting without having a clear purpose in mind.

But here's the trick. You don't need to start out with that purpose. Just as you don't need to know what your character's drive is. As long as you know these things by the time you're through writing you're in good shape. Malleability is the key here -- be willing to change things, even big, central things, about your characters and setting as you work. I'm not arguing against outlines as long as you don't let them get in the way of an organic creative process.

In fact it's not bad to dump the idea of creativity all together -- much of the time when I work creatively I do so with the unconscious assumption that I'm not making things up, I'm uncovering stories and pictures and songs that were there in the first place. For me, the creative act is exploratory rather than seminal.

Pre-planning -- outlining, character backstory, etc. -- is not so much a matter of framing a house as it is a matter of prospecting, taking core samples, observing the terrain.

My paleontology fixation is revealing itself there. It's like finding a little patch of bone here and another one here and then when you start digging you find that they're part of the same skeleton. Maybe you find a beautifully preserved section of jaw that isn't part of the skeleton you're trying to uncover. Don't fit it in, set it aside and save it.

You might find the rest of it some day.

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