November 14, 2013 Plato’s Pizza, Edmonton Alberta
Part Eleven – Plot vs. Character (and Conscious vs. Unconscious Creation)
Question: So, Helena Puumala, plot or characters? Which do you think is more important overall?
Answer: I’m not sure, but I think in my writing I emphasize character. I am acutely aware of the need for plot, though.
Question: Any reasonable plot, or a strong plot?
Answer: Naturally you want both, though I think you can carry a story with a weak plot and strong characters. And by strong character, I mean interesting characters.
Question: Any old interesting? Or do they have to be likeable? Or at least some of them, some of the time?
Answer: I think it’s important that your main characters be both interesting and at least somewhat likeable. The more that people can relate to your main characters, or identify with them, the better off you are as a writer. That makes readers want to follow your characters, to revisit them as they grow and confront new situations. It’s like it is with good friends, or at least interesting acquaintances.
Question: From a commercial point of view that seems like a no-brainer. People generally won’t pay money to be with people they don’t like. What about from an artistic point of view? Some critics or academics would say that lacks the courage to fully explore the dark side of the human psyche.
Answer: That’s why you have villains (laughing). But in the end, you do end up exploring the grey areas of your main characters, anyway. For example, Kati has the sometimes unpleasant Granda node, which may reflect the underside of the human psyche in psychological terms.
Question: Sort of a Jungian thing?
Answer: I suppose that would be “the shadow” in Jungian terms. So, although I take the attitude that I write from the “positive school”, that doesn’t mean that I won’t explore the “non-positive” too.
Question: This is very interesting, but let’s pull back to the notion of plot versus character. Summing up to this point of the discussion, would you say that a strong, interesting, likeable character can carry a story irrespective of plot (within reason), but that character has to be real and complex enough to satisfy the reader’s need for a deeply interesting friend?
Answer: Sure. But having said all that, I do love plot, in both my reading and my writing. A complicated, satisfying story is a delight to behold and contemplate. And they are fun to write.
Question: Do you find that plot is a more left brain, rational exercise and character is more of a right brain, intuitive exercise? In other words, do you have to think about the plot, construct it, literally plot it out, versus letting the characters organically express themselves, through words and action, without a lot of deliberation on your part?
Answer: Dividing the two processes is a bit of a red herring, I find. For myself, I find that the process is co-dependent, for lack of a better term. You may plot things out, which leads the characters into a particular situation and environment, but they may do something that you hadn’t really planned on, which then leads to a plot development that surprises you. You start with one idea, but the interaction of plot requirements and the personalities of the characters will often take you in a very different direction.
Question: So, as I understand it, you start with a plot idea, a situation or a problem, and you insert your characters into it. But they have their own personalities, their own strengths and weaknesses. So, they react to this situation, but that changes the situation, which nudges the plot in directions you didn’t’ expect.
Answer: The kidnapping of Xoraya in Kati 2 is a prime example of that. When I brought her onto the space station, I had no idea that she would be kidnapped. She was supposed to go to a fancy ambassadorial reception, where she would have been introduced to all of the VIPs of the Federation, and would have argued the case in favour of the investigation of the corruption on the planet Vultaire. That was my plan. But any reader knows that is not how the story developed.
Question: Indeed, the Vultarians kidnapped her, to prevent that very meeting with Federation VIPs. But their kidnapping led to the very actions that they were trying to avoid, namely the investigation of Vultaire. So, in a sense, the story arc remained, but it unfolded in an unexpected manner.
Answer: And I think in a better one.
Question: So, this blog has turned out to be more about how stories develop, though the relative importance of plot versus character is a very important aspect of that. But, at a deeper level, it’s about how stories manifest, how much is consciously directed and how much comes up, apparently unbidden from the subconscious mind. I get the feeling that plot is more of a conscious process, while character is more subconscious. But once the process gets rolling, there is so much interaction, that it becomes difficult to separate out these aspects of story creation.
Answer: That seems like a fair description. As a writer, though, one doesn’t want to overanalyse the process, for fear of getting in the way of it. It’s like the joke about asking a centipede how it walks. Before long, it is tripping over its own feet, thinking about which one goes first. Perhaps it is best if the process remains something of a mystery, for both the reader and the writer.
Question: And the publisher too.