Tuesday, March 9, 2010

It Doesn't Have to be One or the Other

One author says, “I write character based fiction,” another says, “I write plot based fiction.” To hear some people talk, you would think that there are some major philosophical differences here, but it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Any writer worth his salt is going to end up doing both and will probably end up doing both in the same novel. Continuing to draw upon The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as our example, Dorothy is clearly quite ordinary and she experiences fascinating things, making the book a plot based story, but a novel is a conglomeration of stories that are tightly woven together. As we look at some of the other characters and the stories surrounding them, we find that they are far from ordinary. Take the Tin Woodman for example. When Dorothy and the Scarecrow find him, he is able to do nothing but grown because he has rusted. There’s something inherently interesting about a man made entirely of tin and the plot of his story is about the most ordinary things. He has been chopping wood and it rained on him. His story appears to be a character based story. From his perspective, we are fascinated by the ordinary.

That’s part of why we mix ordinary characters with the extraordinary. The extraordinary characters give us an opportunity to appreciate the ordinary. Consider the following scene from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

When Dorothy awoke the sun was shining through the trees and Toto had long been chasing birds around him and squirrels. She sat up and looked around her. Scarecrow, still standing patiently in his corner, waiting for her.

"We must go and search for water," she said to him.

"Why do you want water?" he asked.

"To wash my face clean after the dust of the road, and to drink, so the dry bread will not stick in my throat."

"It must be inconvenient to be made of flesh," said the Scarecrow thoughfully, "for you must sleep, and eat and drink. However, you have brains, and it is worth a lot of bother to be able to think properly."

We ordinary creatures take it for granted that we need water; it is part of life, but for the Scarecrow it is a fascinating thing. We look through his eyes and an ordinary girl like Dorothy is one of the most fascinating creatures in the world. She isn’t fascinating because she is unique, but because she is like us. So by proxy, we are fascinating too.

We often see a give and take in stories. If our protagonist is ordinary, then we add interest by putting him in extraordinary situations, but extraordinary situations often require extraordinary characters, which in turn are interesting in how they interact with ordinary situations. We can also turn that around. If our protagonist is extraordinary, then we add interest by putting him in ordinary situations, requiring ordinary characters that are interesting in how they interact with extraordinary situations. It often works well that if the protagonist of the A-plot is an ordinary character in extraordinary circumstances then the B-plot character is an extraordinary character in ordinary circumstances. Conversely, if the A-plot protagonist is an extraordinary character in ordinary circumstances then the B-plot character is an ordinary character in extraordinary circumstances. In Oliver Twist, Oliver is an ordinary character who has many interesting things happen to him, but the Artful Dodger is a colorful character who is a common thief.

In terms of crafting our story, the way we should use this is to look at the characters and scenes that come to mind and ask ourselves whether they fit well together. If we imagine our extraordinary protagonist in an extraordinary scene, we ought to move that scene to the B-plot and let an ordinary character experience it. Or if we have an ordinary protagonist and he isn’t involved in interesting activities, we might throw him some of the more exciting stuff and let the extraordinary B-plot character have the ordinary scenes.