Thursday, December 22, 2011

Character

Much as you enjoy thinking and taking about the scene as the basic unit of drama, you are fond as well of speaking and thinking of the lowest common denominator of the scene, which is the beat.  A beat is an action.  Jack woke up.  Better yet, Gregor Samsa awakened.  A scene is a number of beats, placed in some order to secure some dramatic and emotional effect.

Drama does not need to run in a strict chronology, thus its component beats may be arranged in ways the author believes presents the desired emotional residue.  This optimal arrangement, this non-chronological order of beats is the plot.

Although some novels and stories have memorable plots--usually because these plots are simple to the point of simplistic (Les Miserables, Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick)—it is still possible to make the observation that readers are more apt to recall characters with vivid detail while recalling only the barest of details of the plot.

You for your part have written numerous novels and short stories that found their way into publication and an almost impossible to document number that are mercifully away from your ability to do anything meaningful with them.  You have edited works of fiction, seeing them through both the editorial and production processes, yet you could not estimate with any degree of confidence the approximate number of beats in a novel of average length or a short story of any length.  Your point here is that even with a production oriented need to know the approximate number of words or characters in a text for the purpose of determining the size of the type and the width of a standard line, your senses are more apt to retain the names and background of characters rather than the detailed specifics of the plots in which they found themselves enmeshed.

This is your trump card for the argument that character may supplement plot but character also has the greater likelihood of being recalled, certainly more likely than plot.

Readers and writers begin with the knowledge that characters are mere constructions.  Characters may be built on or modeled after actual individuals, but that is of insignificant consequence if the character is presented in such a way that he or she emerges as real to the reader.  True enough, a story has almost no shot at publication if it sounds contrived, nevertheless the reader recalls the characters, particularly when they are seemingly at their wit’s end.

You might argue that a character find himself or herself at wit’s end is in fact a major plot condition, piling it on with the added observation that the author of a well-crafted narrative has given the character some ability which she must recognize in herself, before setting out to do battle.
Best hope is that the reader will recall a specific plot point or scene because that point or scene had some personal resonance, a fact many critics and shrinks consider proof that we as a species are bound together more in story than racial/ethnic tradition.

We enjoy and seek particular kinds of stories and their situations because we want to see how characters as flawed as we can have a hand in dealing with the wolf pack at their heels.

No matter how much out on the limb a particular character is, we root for that character to extricate himself from that plot because we have identified with the character.  At a certain time in our life, we’ll have tarried with any number of plots.  Yesterday’s pain might have left a scar, last week’s fright may have had an effect on our timing, some plot details might cause us to twitch with discomfort because we’d been somewhere similar, but we have faith in our characters; they’ll get free of the plot complications and go on doing things we’re tempted to watch.

It is a temptation we cannot, in the proper story, resist.



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