27 June 2013

Some Thoughts on the Importance of Plot, Character and Conflict in Fiction

by Brian Thornton


In previous posts I've discussed the importance of nailing down setting and on journaling. I've talked about the importance of doing one's research (especially when writing specialized stuff like historicals).

But what about plot and character?

Fiction these days tends to get microsliced and quantified into ever thinner subgenres, and yet there are really only two categories of "fiction" that matter. Fiction that is plot-driven, and fiction that is character-driven.

I submit to you that the best fiction (and I most emphatically include crime fiction in that designation!) contains both a strong plot and well-crafted, believable characters. As examples of this I give you everything from The Odyssey to The Maltese Falcon, from Hamlet to Pride and Prejudice. All of these works possess terrific plotting and unforgettable characters.


The two together make for compelling reading.

It's possible to go too far one way or the other. Take the recent trend among writers of literary fiction to go too far with character, to eschew plot to the point where no less a worthy than Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon dismisses this entire subgenre as ''plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew.''

And boring.

Boring.

Boring.

Boring!

Take the pendulum in the other direction. We've all read one of those thrillers where the author gives the reader a brief thumbnail sketch of an already familiar protagonist, surrounds this familiar literary trope with other familiar-to-the-point-of-cliche literary tropes (the race against time, doomsday scenario, villains so evil they cause flowers to wilt as they walk past, etc.) then wind up the plot, and take the reader through a breathless three-hundred-plus pages that gets labeled by reliably glowing reviews as "An action-packed thrill ride!" And yeah, sure, the plot moves like gang-busters, but if Biff Hardslab, intrepid ex-(Insert-Name-Of-Goverment-Agency Here)-agent acts as if he's carved from granite, with nothing about him to flesh him out, humanize him, know what else this "plot" is?

That's right.

BORING!

At the risk of stating the obvious, plot and character live in dynamic tension with one another in the best fiction. Without the strong presence of both you've got long prose poems on the one hand and cliched, unengaging drivel on the other.

So how to balance that out? How to keep these two aspects of fiction interacting so that we as writers keep that dynamic tension at work?

One word.

Conflict.

It's one thing these two sides of the fiction coin share.

With plot it's mostly external. Thriller master John Le Carre  once famously said by way of defining plot: "'The cat sat on the mat' is not the beginning of a plot. 'The cat sat on the dog's mat' is."

With Character it's mostly internal:

Private detective Sam Spade disliked his partner, and had so little respect for him that he had begun
NOT boring.
an affair with his wife. When the partner gets killed, what is Spade going to do about it?

King Odysseus of Ithaca gets blown off course on his voyage home. The gods are against him. What is he going to do about it?

Prince Hamlet of Denmark's father died suddenly and his uncle married his mother on the way to edging Hamlet out of his inheritance and the throne. What is he going to do about it?

Elizabeth Bennett has seriously misjudged several men in her life, and things go from bad to worse for her family as a result. What is she going to do about it?

All of these protagonists have options, and a whole solid chunk of each of their stories is filled with their own internal conflicts about "What to do about it"?

And that's where Character comes in. Spade plays everything close to the vest, so much so that no one (including the reader) really knows what he's going to do about this until the last few pages of The Maltese Falcon. No square-jawed saint on a white horse, Spade is two-faced, has little respect for women and apparently none for the sanctity of marriage. But by the end he has laid out in one of fiction's most unforgettable monologues, not only what he's doing, but why.

Why do we like flawed characters like this?

Because we're human beings, and human beings have a love-hate relationship with perfection. We strive for it, are suspicious of the very notion when it's presented to us, and ultimately realize that because of our very nature it is ultimately unobtainable for us.

Many things, but NOT boring!
Take Odysseus. Why does it take him ten years to get home? Because he won't stop taunting the gods. After he cleverly blinds the cyclops Polyphemos and helps his crew escape from the the monster's lair, does he quietly sail away? No. He taunts Polyphemos, reveals his true name, and practically dares the cyclops to do something to even the score. Of course, when you're taunting a guy whose father is the god who rules the water you're using as your highway home, you're probably asking for it.

And Hamlet? He's smart, energetic, insightful, brave and loyal.
Gorgeously written and NOT boring!
He's also torn over the question of his father's death and his uncle's culpability in said death. Add in the fact that he loves his mother and is afraid that she might have had a knowing hand in dear old dad's assassination, and you've got a recipe for indecision to the point of paralysis (and some matchless poetry, to boot!). Once Hamlet finally makes up his mind to act, he does so. With a vengeance.

My wife loves Colin Firth- also NOT boring!
And then there's Elizabeth Bennett. Smart, accomplished, insightful, she is also quick-tempered and given to snap judgements about people. On top of that, she's prideful. Her happy ending only comes after external conflict (plot) has worked on her (character) enough for her to learn enough about herself to face her own shortcomings in lieu of making lists of those of others.

Let's take it to the comments section. What are the names of other authors successfully meld great plotting with unforgettable characters?

4 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Love the post, and I do agree. My top picks among current writers are all in genre fiction: Lois McMaster Bujold, Michael Gruber, Diana Gabaldon. I always talk about the three-legged stool: plot, character, and writing. The movies are more forgiving, though the quality of the script does make a huge difference. I sometimes think the authors of those thrillers you mentioned deliberately give us character as an empty suit of clothes, waiting for Tom Cruise or another of his ilk to inhabit it. And unlike the literary novelists, they're laughing all the way to the bank.

Eve Fisher said...

Plot, character, writing - Anne Tyler, especially "Saint Maybe" - a typical selfish young man, jealous of his brother's new wife, tells his brother that she's cheating on him; brother dies in a car wreck, wife dies of an overdose - how will he deal with it?
Margaret Frazier - "The Apostate's Tale" - a runaway nun in medieval England returns to the convent with her illegitimate son, apparently to repent, but perhaps not...
Mrs. Henry Wood - "East Lynne" - Lady Isabel marries to escape an abusive step-family; then leaves her husband and kids for her true love; when the true love turns out to be a bastard, what will she do to get back into her abandoned family? Oh, and a murder's mixed up in that, too...
And many more.

R.T. Lawton said...

Good article. Never hurts to be reminded about using these two elements while in the process of writing.

Terence Faherty said...

I'd say Le Carre, briefly quoted in your article, is a master at melding plot and character. He's also a master of the third stool leg Elizabeth mentioned: the writing. So was Dorothy Sayers.

My favorite paragraph was the one about the human being's love-hate relationship with perfection.