Monday, October 24, 2005

The Importance of Character

One important reason people read fiction is to read about people. Daily we encounter people saying, doing, and experiencing things we don't understand. Human nature puzzles and intrigues us. The desire to get into other people's heads is universal, and fiction is a portal. This desire is more than curiosity. It is true interest, programmed into us by our genes. For, understanding human nature is crucial to survival in our species.

In fact, readers are more interested in characters than action. They quickly lose interest in even the most exciting action if it doesn't involve characters they care about. Yet this doesn't mean that action is secondary. In fact, you can have a story without characters, but you cannot have a story without action.

There is no value in joining the age-old argument whether character creates plot or plot creates character. It is like the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. You cannot take the character out of the action any more than you can take the action out of the character.

There is really nothing wrong with either position on the question of which is more important, plot or character. It depends on whether you consider it from the audience's point of view or the author's. Moreover, in all honesty, like their disdain for science, much glorification of character and disdain for exciting plot-action is the vanity of artistes (pronounce ar-TEESTS) with delusions of being smarter than those whose more successful, popular writing they devalue.

You cannot have a story without action. But you can indeed have a story without characters, one that interests an audience. An example of such a story is a news story. So is history. Fairy tales, too, can hardly be said to have real characters. Aristotle merely acknowledged this fact. But he didn't say that such a story will be a blockbuster! It certainly couldn't hold a reader's interest for 400 pages.

Journalists know that, though unnecessary, characters do add interest. That is why fiction-writing techniques invaded journalism: they sell the news for maximum profit. So, thirty years ago you got the straight poop in a news story. Today you get the facts sprinkled among the bits of information in a human interest story. For example, thirty years ago, you read that 1,000 people in Smallville lost their jobs and that this event greatly affected the local economy. Today you read the story of one of those people. It is a story that evokes sympathy from you for him or her. The addition of this character to the story adds "human interest" (often a euphemism for drama) and sells much more news than a story without it. That's why fiction-writing techniques in journalism exaggerate a story's weight: the motive is profit, not altruism.

A great writer's characters tower above the rest much more than their plots do. But that doesn't make character more important than plot. Only great writers penetrate the facade over human nature to show us the human race as it really is, not as our collective illusions would have it be. Only F. Scott Fitzgerald shows how sickeningly nearly everybody treats the great Gatsby — not prime-time TV. Only Shakespeare shows the whole court of Denmark ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room, persecuting Hamlet as crazy for seeing it — not prime-time TV. TV is cozy; great literature, profound. So, though the hallmark of a great writer is ruthlessly true-to-life characters, a novel with a weak plot is at least as boring as a novel with weak characters.

You cannot create a plot without a general idea of the characters who will perform the actions that move it. And you cannot create a character without a general idea of what will happen to him. So, you start with a premise that establishes the rudiments of both.

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