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The False Dichotomy of Plot Presentations

August 16, 2017

This is an idea that I touched on in my review of The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure, and I got the urge to discuss it further.

 

The basic premise is that there are two primary ways in which a fictional narrative can be presented to the reader.  Since I don't have any formal education in non-technical writing beyond basic public schooling, I don't know the proper terms for them, but I refer to them as character-driven plot and event-driven plot.  Now, of course, the real driving force behind the plot is whatever the fuck the author wants it to be, and there's nothing forcing any given author to stick with one method or the other (hence why I called it a false dichotomy), but the manner in which it's presented can have a significant impact on the reader's perceptions.  Thus, I feel it's a worthwhile topic to make a conscious decision about when creating a work of fiction.

 

I think the two terms that I threw out are fairly self-explanatory, but for the sake of clarity, let me give some quick definitions.  A character-driven plot is one in which the characters are at the forefront, and it's their motivations and interactions that lead to events happening.  Conversely, an event-driven plot is one in which the events are at the forefront, typically though not always caused by agents beyond the focus of the plot, and the characters are defined and developed through their reactions to these events.

 

Now that that's out of the way, let's examine the further implications of choosing one or the other.

 

A character-driven plot tends to present the characters as having greater agency and influence on their surroundings, be that other characters or the greater setting.  The focus is on the individuals, their strengths, weaknesses, preferences, biases, and so on.  I hesitate to call it humanizing, as that implies an element of bonding, which isn't necessarily the case.  All three novels in the Word Bearers Omnibus were primarily character-driven, but at no point do I think the reader was intended to bond with any of the Word Bearers (bonding with the humans in the subplots was expected, I'm sure, in order to make their conclusions all the more depressing, but I digress).  Instead, the advantage of the character-driven presentation in that context was to enhance how monstrous and vile the Word Bearers were by way of focusing on their inhumanity.

 

In a character-driven plot, it ought to be obvious that the characters are active.  The reader sees them doing things in order to cause the plot to progress.  Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that the plot has to be driven by the protagonist.  Indeed, a common element in fiction, particularly among works with themes about abuse/misuse of power, is that the plot is driven by the antagonist's actions to which the protagonist reacts.  This can still be a character-driven plot, provided that the antagonist is characterized sufficiently for the reader to understand that they're choosing to do the things that they do.  A fine example of this is pretty much any Batman plot, since Batman's niche as the world's greatest detective necessitates taking on a reactive role.  With a few rare exceptions, Batman doesn't stop villains preemptively in an absolute sense.  He might stop them from committing a particular act preemptively, but that's basically always preceded by successful lesser crimes from which he pieces together the villain's greater goals and then takes action to stop them.

 

The flip side of this is an event-driven plot, which tends to be presented in such a way that the starting point of the plot is that things are happening, and the reader is presented with responses from the characters that form the foundation of who those characters are.  Generally, the focus is on the greater world, with the characters serving primarily to show how the people within the world are affected by the plot's progression.  While this style of presentation does tend to place a greater emphasis on predetermined fates over individual agency, this isn't to say that the events aren't instigated by characters as well, but rather that the traits which lead a particular character to cause a particular event are less important than that the particular event happened.  Unless the reader can relate to what's happening, it tends to divorce their experience from that of the characters because the characters are only useful insofar as they're responding to the plot.

 

I already mentioned that The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure is built in this style in that review, but to give another example with more exposure, consider Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone.  The plot is essentially about Voldemort's return, and in that book, Voldemort might as well be a plot device, since he has almost no characterization beyond being an evil wizard who had nigh-godly power until fate decreed that he couldn't kill some baby (yes, I know there's more to it than that, but I'm talking about what's in the first book only).  The actions of the (real) antagonists are all driven by their attempts to facilitate that event, and the actions of the protagonists are by and large all reactions to the actions of the antagonists.  The individual characters are all quite flat and basic (again, within the context of that first book only), and even when the protagonists are able to achieve some success, it's shown in a way that's feels like it's as much luck/fate as it is anything that they actively chose to do.

 

Now, of course, there's nothing restricting an author from switching between one style or the other, even within the same work.  On the contrary, it's something that a good author should be capable of doing in order to better influence how the reader experiences their work.  That having been said, readers will obviously have their own preferences as well.  Personally, as someone who doesn't put much stock in fate and who does value taking responsibility for one's own actions quite highly, it's uncommon for me to enjoy an event-driven plot.  It can certainly happen, but the work has to overcome an initial barrier to my enjoyment.  Conversely, I'm not saying that I'll automatically like something just because it has a character-driven plot, either (my next book review should give ample evidence of that, if previous ones haven't).  However, I'm aware that I tend to like characters who're strong in the sense of imposing their will on the plot at large rather than the reverse.  My tendency to use "badass" as a compliment is a pretty clear sign of that, after all.

 

Ultimately, the method of presenting the plot is nothing more than a tool.  Like with any tool, it's up to the user (the author, in this case) to apply it properly.  Used correctly, the choice of plot presentation can give the reader an experience where the work feels alive and engaging, where there's a greater setting beyond the scope of any single character's limited perspective and yet the characters themselves are still powerful enough to cause changes in that setting of their own volition.  Used incorrectly, either the plot will fizzle out under the weight of overexposed characters who have too much freedom to take it off the rails or the characters will feel like bland constructs who have no purpose beyond telling the reader how the plot makes them feel.  Unfortunately, I think it's common for authors to fixate on a particular style that's comfortable for them and avoid experimenting with different approaches, which is potentially detrimental to the quality of a given work and certainly detrimental to their long-term development.

 

So, should you find yourself writing a bit of fiction, I'd encourage you to take a moment to think about the impact of how you present your plot.  It takes naught but a moment, but it has a great impact on how your plot is experienced by your readers.

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