Thursday, April 21, 2011

Plot and Character: Grand Unification Theory

Reading thuRsday

Carrie Vaugh, sharing a, "7 Things I've Learned So Far," post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog, wrote:
6. Plot and character are the same thing. A story's actions should arise out of the decisions and reactions those particular characters make. Different characters would drive the story in a different direction. Why are these things happening to these particular people and not someone else?  Changing the characters, the kinds of people they are, would change the story. If the events of a story would happen no matter who the characters are, then the characters have no impact on what happens, and why should I want to read about them?
I wanted to expand on this idea.

We're often told to raise the stakes in our stories: why have the bad guy threaten to blow up a city block when he could blow up the entire city! But there are diminishing returns as you continue to raise the stakes. The terrorists are about to detonate a home-made nuclear device that will kill a million people. That's frightening. Now we raise the stakes by adding a nuclear scientist to the terrorist line up who knows how to make a better bomb, one that can kill ten million people. Is that ten times as frightening?

The scope of what's at stake is at best secondary to the significance of what's at stake. That's why a quiet book about someone's heart being broken by an untimely death will elicit more tears than a shoot-em-up where bodies fall faster than autumn leaves.

I'm sure you've heard literary fiction characterized as character-drive in contrast to plot-driven commercial fiction. But the deeper truth is that good stories, regardless of the genre, are about things that matter.

And how do we know what matters?

Because someone cares about it.

Significance is a fascinating attribute because it is not an objective property. Significance only exists because we attribute it. Washington, D.C., sits on a patch of ground that was utterly insignificant until George Washington argued it should be the capital. Once a few people cared about it, a great many others came to care about it too.

Carrie Vaugh's suggestion that plot and character are the same thing leads us to a grand unification theory: character and plot are internal and external aspects of the deeper, underlying unity that meaningful stories about the people and things that matter to the people in the stories that matter to us.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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