Character and plot
I was watching “Shadowlands” on DVD a few weeks ago (Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis) and was struck by a conversation in which Lewis quotes Aristotle who, if I understand it correctly, advocated that plot is of greater importance than character. Perhaps I misread it, and what he was really saying was that character should be revealed through plot. In any case, the relationship between character and plot is an intriguing one. Can plot be likened to a car or some other vehicle and the main character the driver or is there some other, more appropriate analogy?
I have never been on a Creative Writing course (perhaps it shows) and I’d never read any books about the writing process until after I had my first book published and started to think that maybe I should take this writing lark a bit more seriously. I’ve just started reading something that looks really enlightening called “Story” by Robert McKee, recommended to me by an ex-BBC producer, John Hefin.
The first novel that I wrote (“The Cube”) has as its main character, Tyrone Davies, who is overweight, asthmatic and lacking in confidence. Without being falsely modest, I don’t think he’s a particularly memorable character. Being new to the writing game and operating largely by instinct, I put the focus firmly on the plot which, I hope, is exciting and funny. However, although Tyrone is a virtual non-entity, he is surrounded by a menagerie of exotic and flawed characters – Spindle, Rufus Blade, Daphne Gorge, J W Ganymede, Grace Peak and Alpha Minor, each from a different planet in our Solar System. If you think about it, much of the success of “Gavin and Stacey” is due to the larger-than-life characters that revolve around the two titular characters.
Between writing “The Cube” and my second novel, “Rewind”, I bought a book by Helen Corner called “How to Write a Blockbuster”. Despite the title, I would thoroughly recommend it to new and even established writers. It’s full of really helpful advice. In one chapter, the author points out that our favourite books are probably our favourites because of the characters that inhabit them and who, on some level, we connect with. I’ve reflected on this statement and found it largely to be true. For example, as a teenager, I felt connected in some way to Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”.
When it came to writing “Rewind”, I started with character rather than plot and built up the plot around the main character, Artie. Halfway through writing it, I felt the urge to switch from third person to first person, so strongly did I start to identify with him. I also switched from past tense to present tense to get the feeling of the immediate impact on Artie. However, I think I’ll stick to past tense from now on, although I do enjoy writing in the first person if I can find the right character.
Of “The Cube” and “Rewind”, I have no idea which is the better book. However, I’ve read both aloud to my Y6 class and I feel much more comfortable and satisfied reading “Rewind.”
I’ve written three novels (one published) since “Rewind” and, in each of them, after having latched on to that initial idea that gets the old ball rolling, I’ve concentrated on character to begin with, asking myself what would he do/say, how would he react etc.
Obviously there are some genres eg adventure, where plot is the thing, but, I would imagine that the books that truly affect us on a deep level are character driven. I intend to stick with this approach for the foreseeable future.
Does any one else have any thoughts about plot and character and how they are related?
Posted by Frances Thomas for Paul Manship