Why Plot is Essential to Character

by James Scott Bell

Rhett-Butler-Scarlett-O-Hara-scarlett-ohara-and-rhett-butler-6948455-316-392If you ever find yourself among a group of writers, writing teachers, agents or editors; and said group is waxing verbose on the craft of fiction; and the subject of what fiction is or should be rumbles into the discussion, you are likely to hear things like:

All fiction is character-driven.

It’s characters that make the book.

Readers care about characters, not plot. 

Don’t talk to me about plot. I want to hear about the characters!

Such comments are usually followed by nods, murmured That’s rights or I so agrees, but almost never a healthy and hearty harrumph.

So, here is my contribution to the discussion: Harrumph!

Now that I have your attention, let me be clear about a couple of items before I continue.

First, we all agree that the best books, the most memorable novels, are a combination of terrific characters and intriguing plot developments.

Second, we all know there are different approaches to writing the novel. There are those who begin with a character and just start writing. Ray Bradbury was perhaps the most famous proponent of this method. He said he liked to let a character go running off as he followed the “footprints in the snow.” He would eventually look back and try to find the pattern in the prints.

Other writers like to begin with a strong What if, a plot idea, then people it with memorable characters. I would put Stephen King in this category. His character work is tremendous. Perhaps that is his greatest strength. But no one would say King ignores plot. He does avoid outlining the plot. But that’s more about method.

I’m not talking about method.

What I am proposing is that no successful novel is ever “just” about characters. In fact, no dynamic character can even exist without plot.

Why not? Because true character is only revealed in crisis.

Without crisis, a character can wear a mask. Plot rips off the mask and forces the character to transform––or resist transforming.

Now, what is meant by a so-called character-driven novel is that it’s more concerned with the inner life and emotions and growth of a character. Whereas a plot-driven novel is more about action and twists and turns (though the best of these weave in great character work, too). There is some sort of indefinable demarcation point where one can start to talk about a novel being one or the other. Somewhere between Annie Proulx and James Patterson is that line. Look for it if you dare.

We can also talk about the challenge to a character being rather “quiet.” Take a Jan Karon book. Father Tim is not running from armed assassins. But he does face the task of restoring a nativity scene in time for Christmas. If he didn’t have that challenge (with the pressure of time, pastoral duties, and lack of artistic skills) we would have a picture of a nice Episcopal priest who would overstay his welcome after thirty or forty pages. Instead, we have Shepherds Abiding.

If you still feel that voice within you protesting that it’s “all about character,” let me offer you this thought experiment. Let’s imagine we are reading a novel about an antebellum girl who has mesmerizing green eyes and likes to flirt with the local boys.

Let’s call her, oh, Scarlett.

We meet her on the front porch of her large Southern home chatting with the Tarleton twins. “I just can’t decide which of you is the more handsome,” she says. “And remember, I want to eat barbecue with you!”

Ten pages later we are at an estate called Twelve Oaks. Big barbecue going on. Scarlett goes around flirting with the men. She also asks one of her friends who that man is who is giving her the eye.

“Which one?” her friend says.

“That one,” says Scarlett. “The one who looks like Clark Gable.”

“Oh, that’s Rhett Butler from Charleston. Stay away from him.”

“I certainly will,” says Scarlett. (The character of Rhett Butler never appears again.)

Scarlett then finds Ashley Wilkes and coaxes him into the library.

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” Ashley says. “Let’s get married.”

So they do.

One hundred pages later, Scarlett says, “I really do love you, Ashley.”

Ashley says, “I love you, Scarlett. Isn’t it grand how wonderful our life is?”

At which point a reader who has been very patient tosses the book across the room and says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

What’s missing? Challenge. Threat. Plot! In the first few pages Scarlett should find out Ashley is engaged to another woman! And then she should confront him, and slap him, and then break a vase over the head of that scalawag who looks like Clark Gable! Oh yes, and then a little something called the Civil War needs to break out.

These developments rip off Scarlett’s genteel mask and begin to show us what she’s really made of.

That is what makes a novel.

Yes, yes, you must create a character the readers bond with and care about. But guess what’s the best way to do that? No, it’s not backstory. Or a quirky way of talking. It’s by disturbing their ordinary world.

Which is a function of plot.

So don’t tell me that character is more important than plot. It’s actually the other way around. Thus:

  1. If you like to conceive of a character first, don’t do it in a vacuum. Imagine that character reacting to crisis. Play within the movie theater of your mind, creating various scenes of great tension, even if you never use them in the novel. Why? Because this exercise will begin to reveal who your character really is.
  1. Disturb your character on the opening page. It can be anything that is out of the ordinary, doesn’t quite fit, portends trouble. Even in literary fiction. A woman wakes up and her husband isn’t in their bed (Blue Shoe by Ann Lamott). Readers bond with characters experiencing immediate disquiet, confusion, confrontation, trouble.
  1. Act first, explain later. The temptation for the character-leaning writer is to spend too many early pages giving us backstory and exposition. Pare that down so the story can get moving. I like to advise three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages, used all at once or spread around. Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages. Try this as an experiment and see how your openings flow.
  1. If you’re writing along and start to get lost, and wonder what the heck your plot actually is, brainstorm what may be the most important plot beat of all, the mirror moment. Once you know that, you can ratchet up everything else in the novel to reflect it.

Do these things and guess what? You’ll be a plotter! Don’t hide your face in shame! Wear that badge proudly!

Super Plotter

Mad Men and Bad Men

James Scott Bell

AMC’s award winning series, Mad Men, is back for another season. It kicked off last Sunday to somewhat disappointing ratings.  Which makes it an interesting case study in storytelling. I’d like to explore that a little bit, and make a point about how to portray what I call “negative Leads.”
For those out of the loop, Mad Men  is a recreation of the Madison Avenue advertising world of the early 60s. It’s a fabulous rendition, down to the most minute set details, costumes, dialogue and current events. It really does feel like you’re back in time. The acting is first rate, too. But now comes the hard part.
The series centers around Don Draper, a handsome cipher who happens to be great at his job, advertising. He’s not so great at life. He’s a serial adulterer with a checkered past, given to losing his temper when things don’t go his way. The characters surrounding him are no angels, either. Everyone has “issues” (back in the day when it was not cool to say you had “issues.”)
Which is the challenge of the show. A good friend of mine said he tried to get into it but “I couldn’t stand any of the characters.” So he jumped ship.
And that invites (note: not “begs”) the $64,000 question: how can you tell a story with a Lead character who is not an admirable person? How long can you expect readers, or viewers, to stick with a negative Lead?
I am sure the show’s creators have taken on this challenge purposely. They did not want to create a “same old” show. In a way, they’ve given us the first truly postmodern series on TV: a meandering plot line about enigmatic characters who seem to have no purpose in life save the making of money in their work.
This is new because for millennia story has been about heroes battling on behalf of the community, upholding its sacred values and traditions (read Joseph Campbell for more on that.)
But Mad Men doesn’t give us this kind of Lead. Instead, we are asked to empathize with Don Draper as he goes about (for four seasons now) acting in ways that are self-destructive, immoral and confused. For many viewers, like my friend, that isn’t enough to hold them.
Here’s my theory on that. An audience will track with a negative Lead if they see a chance for his redemption. Or, in the alternative, to see if he will get his comeuppance. 
Think about that. Why do we read about Scrooge, a bitter misanthrope who hates, of all things, Christmas? We follow his account to see if he’ll be redeemed.
Likewise Scarlett O’Hara. What a little twit. But when the Civil War breaks out and she has to save Tara, we wonder, Hey, maybe she’ll grow up after all. (She does, but too late, and that’s a tragedy.)
What these Leads show us early on is the possibility and capacity for change. That’s what gives us hope as we read about them. Scarlett shows grit and Scrooge shows empathy. We begin to think they have a shot at getting things right.
In Mad Men, it’s unclear if there is any “right.” And that may be what frustrates a large bloc of viewers. Personally, I keep watching because I want to see if Mad Men ultimately has what the Greeks called telos – a purpose, a completeness – toward which it is working. But I have to say I’m watching more in the capacity of the interested observer than the passionate lover. I admire the show even as it keeps me at something of a distance.
Another example is House. Unlikable Lead very good at what he does. But as another close friend recently told me, “I stopped watching because I got tired of waiting. It wallows too much in its negativity.”
So there’s the challenge. Most readers and viewers hope for redemption, but if you make them wait too long you risk losing them.
What about you? Do you prefer to read books or watch shows about traditional heroes? (Note that a good hero has flaws, but is still aiming toward something we can vaguely label “the good.”) Or do shows like Mad Men and House do enough to hold your interest?