Tuesday, October 7, 2014

All this biz about "character-driven"

I've been wanting to talk for a while about what it feels like when something gets published and you don't think it's that great. Before I can do that, I guess I have to back up to talk about what "great" means. I'd like to deny having an aesthetic philosophy, because it sounds like something the people in grad school would have claimed they had, but I guess I can't deny that I have one. It isn't that complicated, and it's really old school. Literature should: teach something, give joy to those who read it, or both. Preferably both. If you know aught of literary history, you'll recognize this as the old Horatian "instruct and delight."

I think modernity mistrusts "instruction." We tend to talk about observation, and revealing truth in little bits like reporters, rather than philosophers. Instruction smacks of didacticism or pedanticism. It's stuff for kids. And even stuff for kids doesn't do that anymore, we think. Don't give us your morals, your fobbed-off truisms. We want real life, life as it is.

The writing books tend to support this. We are encouraged to imagine characters like they are real people, imagine every little thing we can about them, then put them in situations and see what happens. You let your characters show you what they will do. That's the essence of "character-driven" fiction in a nutshell.

A lot of thoughtful folks have written about what "character-driven" means as opposed to "plot-driven." The main thrust of most writers is that in character-driven stories, everything that happens flows as a result of who the character is. Jodi Henley said that the first Rambo movie was character-driven, because:

it’s the psychological study of a Vietnam vet. In the movie, Rambo is a drifter. Everything that happens in First Blood builds on his backstory and who he became because of that backstory. When he heads up into the mountains and does his whole poncho-survivalist thing, it’s understandable because he was Special Forces. It’s something he was trained to do. When he refuses to leave town, it’s because he was a former prisoner of war and he was controlled for a long time, which means he refuses to let anyone control or confine him.
But later Rambo installments were plot-driven: "Although Rambo is still at the center of each movie, he could easily be replaced by pretty much any action hero from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Jason Statham because the scriptwriters forgot the simple incident Morell based Rambo’s reactions on—Rambo was a POW."

Jordon McCollum's idea is much closer to mine: "Most writers use both character and plot to drive the story forward....It's not an either/or." I'd go a little further, though. Remember all those "elements of fiction" that were tacked up on your 7th grade teacher's wall? Plot, character, setting, conflict, theme? I think ALL of these drive a story. In any story, one of them might come more front-and-center than another. In some stories, like maybe the first Saw movie, setting might not matter that much. In others, plot might take a back seat (Tree of Life). But all the elements exist in just about every story.

To me, then, whether a story is "driven" by X,Y, or Z is kind of arbitrary. A story should be driven by what the story calls for. But I think I tend to call a story "plot driven" if, when asked to describe it, the first thing I do is start telling the plot. I guess that means that most stories end up being plot-driven to me. For example, I'd call Hunger Games a plot-driven story, because if you ask me to describe it, I'd say it's about a world where the government makes kids fight each other in an arena like gladiators. Plot.

So a story can be driven by plot, character, setting, conflict. What about theme? Can there be theme-driven fiction? Again, modernity tends to groan at the thought, but if you consider the best-loved stories that most people treasure, I think there are a lot of stories where theme might be the first thing you think of. Examples: Moby Dick, 1984 (or a whole lot of dystopian stories: The Giver, Brave New World, etc.), the parables of the New Testament, lots and lots of kid's stories, To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath. I could go on. Maybe you'll think some of these are stories you remember more for the plot. Fine. But I'll bet you could take a decent shot at a one or two-sentence summary of the theme of any of these stories.

I like stories where I either think I can figure out a theme or where I am left what feels like a breadcrumb trail leading me to the direction of theme. You don't have to hit me over the head with it. Even Jesus knew not to do that. But I want theme to be within my reach if I do some work for it.

A word about what theme is and is not. "Friendship" or "social justice" are not themes. Those are subjects. How you feel about friendship or social justice are themes. This is the source of my crankiness at my editor Blake Kimzey from Crave magazine. He had some great ideas about how to make the story come alive, but I thought he was mistaken about the theme, and we used a different vocabulary to even talk about theme. Why? Because modern-day literature and writing programs don't teach theme in this way.

I disagree. I think it's the most important thing there is. It's why we read not just fiction, but anything. To know something about the world. I'm not saying you should write a story where you say "I'm going to write something that proves that love really does conquer all" or "I'm going to write something that embodies my belief in free markets." But if you can take cues from your imaginary character to guide you through a story, why can't you also be led by your sense of the way the universe is? Will Tom and Angie end up together? Well, do you think that the universe is full of souls who never really connect? If yes, then probably not.

So theme matters, theme isn't a broad subject, theme can guide fiction overall. Keep this in mind when I talk in my next post about why I sometimes wonder about what does and doesn't get published.

FREEBIE: Examples of quick themes in well-known stories:

Moby Dick: If you go up against the universe, you're likely to get the crap kicked out of you.
The Giver: Being fully human causes a lot of problems, but it's worth it.
To Kill a Mockingbird: Leave people who don't bother you the fuck alone.
Grapes of Wrath: Poor people get shit on by rich people.
1984: In the end, stupidity will be the end of us.

Terrible example of the concept of theme: "As the title suggests, the main themes in Pride and Prejudice really are pride and prejudice." --some middle school teacher somewhere. Neither pride nor prejudice is a theme. 


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