Saturday, December 31, 2016


A significant difference between the major characters, which is to say protagonist and antagonist, in the plot-based story and the character-based or -driven story can be summed up in the portmanteau word "backpack."

Protagonists in the plot-driven story are distinguished by their major goal, which resides outside their inner landscape. Thus a salesperson, struggling to meet a sales quota against the risk of being fired for underperformance, an aging athlete, struggling to achieve a permanent starting position on the team, against the risk of being sent "down" to the minor leagues; a homicide detective, nearing retirement, haunted by a particular unsolved case, against the risk of having to live out retirement with the knowledge of that failure; a psychiatrist, struggling to effect a depressed patient's "recovery," against the risk of that patient's eventual suicide.

All those examples can provide satisfactory outcome in the dramatic sense, and yet each in its own way is a cliche, dating at least as far back as the narratives of Horatio Alger and his rags-to-riches memes, but of course even farther down the dusty roads of history. There is nothing inherently "wrong" with such tropes; they are in large measure a part of the cultural heritage of hard work and individual determination being the sine qua non of civilized psyche.

The external goal resembles the joke patter of the comedian, where the pattern is the set-up--"A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar," the introduction of the complication, then the payoff/surprise/punchline.  The payoff may indeed be funny, possibly hilarious. 

But there is nowhere to go afterward. The comedian needs a new set-up, immediately, or the audience will grow restive.  A plot-driven story may dazzle with its intricacies, its deft manipulations of the dramatic genome as it accelerates the risk to the narrator and causes the reader to fear, repeat, fear the eventual triumph of the antagonist.

Nevertheless, the plot-driven story, on close inspection, borders on, if not trespasses into cliche. The reader is in effect following such authors for the thrill of the trespass rather than the emotional impact of the story.

The character-driven story is no less goal oriented then the plot-driven narrative, nor is there any less appreciation of the thrill of the trespass. But, unlike the comic's need for a new set-up, or the plot-driven writer's need for a new, downward spiral of risk to the protagonist, another dimension presents itself--the inner goal. Character-driven stories become two or more parallel lines in simultaneous development where the plot-driven story limits itself to one orbit of momentum.

A protagonist in a character-driven story should have an external goal, otherwise there would be no story. Nevertheless, the protagonist also has an inner desire or goal, sometimes a goal buried so deeply within that the character is not consciously aware of it, seemingly fighting the awareness of it with each successive scene until--well, until Macbeth kills the king or Walter White kills his first antagonist, on his way toward the inevitable, explosive confrontation with  Gus Fring.

The evolution from plot-driven to character driven narrative can be traced in three novels you've been studying in recent months, written by an author who got his start with the plot-driven story. The novels are, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and The Fury, and Light in August,all by William Faulkner, wherein each allows you to see a cast of characters with outer and inner goals, each a particular journey along the cusp of cliche, with sudden, unanticipated lapses into an awareness of being doused with the chilly waters of recognition.

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