Sunday, Oct 19, 2008

Structure and Character

Dear Power Writers, 

In his Ars Poetica, Aristotle concluded that plot (or structure) precedes character. With the development of the novel, however, that viewpoint began to change. By the 19th century, when the novel assumed its position as a major literary genre, the consensus shifted to character before plot. 

But the debate is by no means over. Even today, there are those who insist that plot supersedes character, and there are those who firmly believe that character precedes plot. I am of the latter camp. I believe that plot flows out of character. 

Consider, for instance, the stories that you most remember. What do you remember about them? I would guess the characters. Yet, if we define plot as structure, then a new perspective arises. McGee posits a very thoughtful thesis when he says that “structure is character; character is structure.” If this is, indeed, the case, then both camps of thought are right. 

The argument continues, as McGee points out, because of the confusion between the terms “character” and “characterization”. Characterization consists of all the observable qualities of a person. In short, the outward appearance. Character, on the other hand, is inward and is revealed through the choices a person makes under pressure. We’ve all heard the truism that “character is who we are under pressure”.  Pressure, therefore, is the key in distinguishing between character and characterization. 

So what does this have to do with structure? In McGee’s own words, “the function of STRUCTURE is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures . . . . ” (pp. 105-106). From this perspective, structure (or plot) and character are inseparably intertwined. The structure of a story flows from the choices a character makes under pressure. 

Perhaps my homemade formula will provide a simple equation: CHARACTER + PRESSURE = PLOT. A change to one element of the equation will create a change in the other two. 

Perhaps it’s time to end the debate between which comes first: character or plot. Both are essential to writing a good story. And both deserve equal attention. 




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2 thoughts on “Structure and Character

  1. I went to a friend’s house this weekend for a mini-writing retreat and some visiting time. We brainstormed a bit about the idea I have for a new story. I have a loose plot, but I need to know the CHARACTERS before I can begin to write the story.

    I think both plot and character are important, but even if you have a great plot idea, it doesnt’ come to live without vibrant and interesting characters.

    October 20, 2008 at 12:25 PM

  2. Hi MaryAnn –

    In my opinion, without characters there’s no plot. How do you write a story minus people, animals, aliens or whatever?

    Someone or something must make decisions and take action. Otherwise you’re left with only a setting.

    I like your equation. It’s not either/or, but rather both elements that make a successful novel.

    Susan 🙂

    October 20, 2008 at 7:51 PM