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They’re Plotting Against Me!

People (tutors, writers, other students) have told me the same thing in different configurations: “Characters drive the narrative!”

I nod. I agree. I go back to quietly and tightly plotting and planning every aspect of the novel I’m writing – because, actually, I don’t really believe it. I read interviews with writers who say they invent characters and they sort of wander off and do their own thing.

“They’re out of my control!” they cry, “She wanted to spend the entire book weeping in a cupboard”.

Of course, character is important. Characters must be satisfying by whatever criteria you wish to measure satisfaction. But should they be given minds of their own and set free to do whatever they please? Moulded from clay like goylem?

Stephen King claims that’s what he does. Not actually renanimate mud, granted, but he says in his memoir On Writing that he starts with character first and plot grows from what those characters go off and do.

Funny, then, that in every single one of his novels his characters make bad decisions that turn out to be influenced by some guilty secret from their childhood/the past which manifest as destructive supernatural forces.

Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter how comprehensively characters are constructed, they are always invention. As such, they are subject to the same limits of invention as plot. They are fragments of the author.

I say this because, implicit in the notion that character is paramount – that modern fiction must be a facsimile of reality – is the twin idea that plot is redundant. Or, at best, secondary.

Thing is, I like plot. I learned how to love plot from reading science fiction short story anthologies, dozens of them, throughout my adolescence; one tightly described high concept after another. Characters reduced to cyphers.

And while I don’t subscribe to the view that characters should be mere pawns, shifted around in one of a number of finite patterns, I don’t feel satisfied unless I’ve been given a conundrum to solve; a set of ideas to work through.

A story.

And here’s  the link that starting me thinking about this, on this cold Christmas morning, instead of presents and egg nog; an interesting piece from the Wall Street Journal about a resurgence in plot.

(…) the discipline of the conventional literary novel is a pretty harsh one. To read one is to enter into a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience. The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward’s way out, for people who can’t deal with the real world. If you’re having too much fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Lev Grossman – Good Novels Don’t have to be Hard

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