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Worrying About the Right Things

April 11, 2012

Where were we? So last week we talked about not worrying about plot and I left off with that little quote from Fizgerald: “Action is character.”

Now upon reading that initially, one might immediately jump to the conclusion: If Action=Character & Action=Plot then Character=Plot. To which I say, Hold thy breeches!

Didn’t I say we weren’t going to worry about plots here? So stop it with this ‘plot’ stuff! Modernists and Postmodernists have been flattening, fracturing, elipsizing and generally working around the nuisance of plot for generations now. Even dear old Laurence Sterne had a go at it with Tristram Shandy. So, for real this time, no more plots!

What I am getting at, firstly, is that what tends to really interest readers isn’t all the stuff that’s happening in your story, but to whom it’s happening or who it’s happening because of or to whom nothing is happening, etc… This likely seems elementary. But I’ll put forward that an awful lot of writers think of a setting and a situation and what ought to happen before they ever think of character. This is why, no matter how much they outline, their stories just seem to wander off-target of their own accord. While frustrating, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But more on that later.

Secondly, once you’ve internalized this notion, think of the implications of Fitzgerald’s little bon mot: Action is character. These are the actors of our little narrative, after all. The externalizers. The constructs that allow the abstract to be made dramatically concrete. It is fine to have them think and muse. But it’s how their worldview is externalized that really matters. It’s what they say and what they do that makes them compelling and therefore it’s what they say and do that makes your story compelling.

In The Silence of the Lambs, for example, we are told repeatedly about the evil of Hannibal Lecter. “A monster,” Dr. Chilton calls him. A pure sociopath. We are given graphic descriptions of the things he’s done. Conversely, Clarice Starling is introduced as smart, but green in the field. And then we get this little passage:

Starling knew Lecter was watching her from the darkness. Two minutes passed. Her legs and back ached from her struggle with the garage door, and her clothes were damp. She sat on her coat on the floor, well back from the bars, her feet tucked under her, and lifted her wet, bedraggled hair over her collar to get it off her neck.

Behind her on the TV screen, an evangelist waved his arms.

“Dr. Lecter, we both know what this is. They think you’ll talk to me.”

Silence. Down the hall, someone whistled “Over the Sea to Skye.”

After five minutes, she said, “It was strange going in there. Sometime I’d like to talk to you about it.”

Starling jumped when the food carrier rolled of Lecter’s cell. There was a clean, folded towel in the tray. She hadn’t heard him move.

There is a lot of information about character here almost exclusively via external action and detail. We get a clear sense of Starling’s candor and her stubborn determination. We also see that she is beginning to understand how to get Lecter to respond when she shifts from an ‘official’ register to one that is more personal. Intimate. She’s got serious interpersonal chops, Starling does, even with a sociopath. And guts, too, in being willing to talk to him one-on-one. (Although her nerves are betrayed when she’s startled by the food tray.) We also see Lecter’s code of etiquette externalized. That he respects Starling enough to be, if not exactly kind, then polite. That this politeness is important to him. And the fact that etiquette matters to him is curiously humanizing. It’s the same personal dynamics we’ll see later in the final, tense quid pro quo between the two of them.

It’s no coincidence that all of these traits inform the story very specifically. Meaning, that who they are and how they behave not only shape the narrative arc but make the story relevant period.  We root for Starling. We are fascinated by Lecter.  We give a shit about what happens because we give a shit about them.

What I’m getting at is, instead of worrying about plots, try worrying first about character. And once you’ve done that, worry about how to convey your characters’ worldviews and philosophy into action. That’s the stuff a reader remembers. Jules and Vincent ‘getting into character’ in Pulp Fiction. The Judge turning a tent revival into a manhunt in Blood Meridian. Atticus Finch tossing the glass to Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. And if you’re someone with a plot in mind but can’t write more than a few pages without deviating from it, I’ll bet it’s because your characters aren’t acting the way you thought they would. That’s okay. If they’re lively enough to strike out on their own, then they’re worth following for a while.

For next week: Using thoughts and perceptions as adjuncts to action.


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  1. Thx Brian. Chris, put it on the TBR list. Suggestion appreciated.

  2. I agree. Character creates plot. This craft book below is one of my favorites; my drummer likes it too but just to do drugs off of it.

  3. Great post here,Randy. Whenever I teach Intro to Creative Writing, I always tell my students to focus on character first, which should lead to other aspects of the story, such as plot and action.

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