Saturday, June 22, 2013

Attila in Wonderland: Characters and Plot

I hear plenty of discussion about whether a story is plot-driven or character-driven. To hear people talk, you would think it was a basic either/or choice like PC or Mac, left or right.

I don't see it that way. I see it as two doors to the same house, or two sides to the same cookie. In my mind, the characters make the plot and the plot makes the characters. It's the old nature and nurture theme. In fiction or in real life, the personalities of the individuals involved shape what happens and what happens shapes the personalities of the individuals involved.

As an example, let's imagine the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. Alice's sister reads a book while Alice grows bored because the book has no pictures, and wanders off and falls down a rabbit hole. Those things couldn't have happened unless:

  1. Alice's sister liked reading books without pictures.
  2. Alice found books without pictures boring.
So the whole plot of Alice in Wonderland would have been different if the characters had been different. What if we replaced Alice and her sister with two other people, let's say Don Quixote and Attila the Hun? Would Attila in Wonderland read like a pro-wrestling match? Maybe. It certainly would be a lot different from Alice's version.

Now what if we kept Alice and her sister, but changed the events? What if, instead of having a white rabbit run by in a waistcoat, we had a boy fall out of a tree and accuse Alice of trying to kill him? Again, the story would be very different. The story comes from the interplay of characters and plot.

But why is this important? If all good stories are driven by both characters and plot, then why care if the writer imagines it one way or the other? Because I believe that as a general rule, the best stories are written by authors who look at the cookie from both sides.

Most stories I've seen described by their authors as 'plot-driven' actually have shallower plots because they have shallower characters. There may be more action, more danger, etc., but it doesn't feel as exciting because we are not as invested in the people of the story. And most stories written as 'character-driven' tend to be more sappy than relatable.

I'm sure there are plenty of great ways to come up with a story concept, but in case anyone wants to know, here's what I usually do: I imagine a situation where something is wrong and urgently needs to be made right, and I imagine at least two people in that situation with desperate and mutually-exclusive agendas for solving the problem.

These agendas, of course, stem from their backstories and personalities, and their stories and personalities will of course become shaped by their interactions with each other and the situation.

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