Joyce Carol Oats—
“I always begin my novels with precisely identified characters in environments that have, in a sense, given birth to them. From characters, as from individuals in life, inevitable stories flow that constitute the formal ‘plot’ of the novel.”
When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.
Semantics aside, which is the star of the show, plot or character?
The debate is as old as the art. Aristotle weighed each side and concluded that story is primary, character secondary. His view held sway until, with the evolution of the novel, popular opinion swung the other way. By the nineteenth century, many held that structure is merely an appliance designed to display personality, that what the reader wants is complex characters. And the debate continues. The reason for the hung jury is simple—we can’t decide between the two because we can’t distinguish the two—structure is character and character is structure.
Dramatic action pulls readers to the edge of their seats, and yes, conflict, tension, suspense and curiosity keep them turning the page. But no matter how exciting the action, the character’s emotional development provides the source of fascination. Suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to respond. Without a human element, action loses its lure.
“[Poseidon’s] intensity is strictly physical, the intended emotional impact submerged in a numbing onslaught of death, danger and derring-do as a bunch of mostly annoying, self-centered passengers fight their way to the surface.” Sheri Linden, HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
“Calling a summer movie ‘action-packed’ is supposed to be a compliment, but there’s nothing so tedious as nonstop excitement.” Stephanie Zacharek, SALON.COM
Effective plotting incorporates action and reaction to build momentum and deepen meaning. By using action to propel the forward motion of the story and reaction to show the impact actions have on the characters, an audience becomes invested in the plot.
What is character but the determination of incident. And what is incident but the illumination of character.”
A story’s event structure emerges from the choices its characters make, while characters are revealed and changed by how they choose to respond to events. Plot cannot be carried out without characters, and characters cannot be made dynamic except through plot.
Character Embodies Emotion & Emotion Dictates Action
The greatest mistake a novelist can make is to slap a few caricatures or stereotypes onto the page and begin pulling their strings. In our struggle to recreate life, it’s equally fatal to plod along without a fully-fleshed, well-defined persona. If we introduce our protagonist like a parent introduces an infant to the world, our readers will fall asleep. The task requires Mary Shelleyian finesse, imploring us to harness life’s voltage from everything we are and have been, know and known, and to transfer that current to the page with such keenness as to resurrect The Character, a mature individual whose been around the block enough times to have his or her own walk, manner of speech, method of coping, worldview, lexicon of internal contradictions, and—most importantly—prevailing desire.
Purpose spins plot. The storyline is the wish line.
Our hero’s desire is integral to his emotional and psychological profile. Motive is born of emotion, you see, and the motion (the action) is directed by the motive. Almost everything we do in life is action compelled by motive, deed driven by emotion. To create our characters—hence, our plot—we must isolate the psychology behind the hero’s desire, whether our hero’s central issue is the search for a father, how he or she feels about an estranged mother, the experience of leading a marginal existence, maybe the desire for fame and glory, the wish for recognition, status, human dignity, security, romantic love.
The subject of fiction is an emotional experience. The writer must know the nature of the emotion that makes his characters, particularly his hero, who they are, as well as why they do what they do. By isolating the driving emotion—exploring it, defining it, sharpening it—he is able to create an authentic hero. The predominate emotion erects a skeleton and clarifies the story’s concept—plot denotes character, and character denotes plot.
A novel like Madame Bovary, for instance, centers on what from life a romantic young woman who’s brought up in a convent and addicted to reading love stories wanted—and what she actually got. Her primary emotion, frustration with her mundane existence, establishes the story’s theme and her motivation. This is a drama of deceptions and self deception, a woman’s revolt against boredom and mediocrity. Emma Bovary, living up to her romantic ideal, chooses to travel the road from illusion to reality where she meets her destruction. If we take a closer look at the work, we see that her emotions are:
- Consistent with her character
- Powerful enough to sustain the action
- Complex—a system of relating feelings, including her religious mysticism, making an integrated whole
- Sincere—on both Emma and Flaubert’s part
- Important—created with particulars that resonate with general laws, making Emma’s story universal and identifiable
Emotion insists on realizing its end. It has a goal, which is obstructed, and from this obstruction—from the friction, or the frustration, it produces—drama unfolds. The torrent of emotion provides movement to the plot—movement that is not diffuse and aimless but channeled by the hero’s emotion.
By defining the primary emotion, the writer finds his hero, his hero’s motive, and his story’s theme.
So let’s get started. Continue to Part II, Creating Memorable Characters.