The Kiss Between Plot & Character
I wanna talk about this weird math equation that I've put over here from when I was in graduate school. I had a teacher tell me that if your first novel ends up being 300 pages, you're gonna write 1200 pages along the way. And I sort of, you know, I was in my late 20s and I obviously knew everything about the history of the world. So I looked at her like, yeah right, lady. Maybe you had to do that, but I'm so special and smart that I'm probably only gonna have to write like 307 pages. Get the thesaurus out, move some commas around, and I'm done, that's it. I'm never gonna have to waste 900 extra pages, that's stupid. Fortunately, and unfortunately, her math proved to be spot on. And I think one of the really important splendid delusions, of which we probably need a lot as writers, but the most important splendid delusion for us is that the 900 pages a reader will never see are just as valuable as the 300 that are bound and placed on the shelf. We're writing two books at the same time. ...
There's the big, bulbous, overly-written, 1200 page draft that is just authorial research. It's all the stuff we need to know in order to do our job right. And from there, once we've established the 1200 pages, then we curate it from there. Then we say, oh, the reader needs to know this, the reader needs to know this, the reader needs to know this and I'll plop that over here in the 300 page version. But we have to know what all of our options are. I want you to feel like a reckless explorer. Like don't put too much pressure on yourself to get it right early. Let draft one be magnificently sloppy. Let draft two be pretty much the same way. And slowly, on an incremental basis, we'll start to make improvements as we continue to draft ahead. But fill up that 1200 pages of stuff. Well maybe the question then becomes, with what? What am I actually going to be doing with this extra 900 pages? Well, there is no such thing as the extra 900 pages, right? This is how we do our authorial due diligence. This is how we organize things into a fastidious vault, and then we start to pick the ones that are gonna be the most significant. So we're kind of talking now about how to fill up these 1200 pages, what are we gonna do in order for us to learn the most pieces of information that we possibly can about the character. And that's where we talk about the kiss between plot and character. Taking advantage of the word plot, and taking advantage of the word character. And maybe when we're first kind of cutting our teeth as storytellers, it's important to keep these things as sovereign commodities. We have a plot bucket over here, we have a character bucket over here, and we're slowly filling them up. But what I'm arguing today, with the creation of this word, plaracterization, is that our storytelling is gonna get so elegant that these two seemingly separate commodities are gonna fuse together. And your reader will never know what's a plot push, and your reader will never know what's a detail to simply further characterization, because we're going to be able to do both of these things at precisely the same time. So let's meet plaracterization. This is my Vanna White impression, plaracterization. Did I do that right? The theory of plaracterization dawned on me when I was on tour for my third book, Damascus. I was in a Chicago independent bookstore. And they had put by the front door this really odd melange of books. Combinations of titles and genres that didn't make any sense to me as I was looking at it. So I was there, standing in front of this end cap, and the top two titles were Elizabeth Gilbert's 'Eat, Pray, Love' right next to Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange. So I stood there for a minute, as I'm want to do, thinking all sorts of snide things. I'm looking at this display being like, who put this together, this doesn't make any sense, what are they trying to accomplish here? And then I started laughing. And I though to myself, how funny would it be if the main characters jumped out of the books and switched places. So all of a sudden Alex from Clockwork Orange was going through the plot trajectory of 'Eat, Pray, Love'. And Elizabeth Gilbert was now the star of Clockwork Orange. I would read both of those books, but you could see how based on kind of the personality type of the protagonist, the whole book would completely mutate. It would completely evolve based on the particulars of who that person is, what makes them unique, what makes them them. When Alex from Clockwork Orange is interacting with a plot point, he's solving it in his very Alex way. We're coming back to that word that we were introduced earlier, the idiosyncratic. Except now we're not talking about an image, or something external, we're talking about something internal. Alex's decision making mechanism. How Alex would deal with this plot point. And how he deals with this plot point is gonna dictate the next plot point. And how he deals with this plot point will dictate the next one, so on and so forth. So all of a sudden if Elizabeth Gilbert comes in and she's forced to interact with that same first plot point, she's probably gonna do something entirely different. Because she's not a psychopath. So the Clockwork Orange that Burgess had put together for Alex would completely fall apart, and it would become an entirely new book, with Elizabeth Gilbert as its star. So I was standing there watching these protagonists swap narratives, thinking to myself, this is how I should start teaching plot and character. Not that they're separate commodities, not that they're different buckets for us to fill with content. That they are the exact same thing. So your reader would never be able to look at page 37 and say, that's a plot push. She would never be able to look at page 49 and say, this is obviously something to further character. We're gonna bring this element of simultaneity to these things, so we're doing these things in a very active, in a very readable way. I think those are really important modifiers for us. Active and readable. And the active part of it is kind of tipping your hand to the audience. What we're trying to do is foster and nurture the most active role for the audience. So she has the potential, or the power, to look at all these various plot points and start to compile her own interpretation. So if 10 people read the same thing, they're reading entirely different things. Because they've had the opportunity to be an active participant. The great Paul Bowles used to talk about trying to turn his readers into detectives. He didn't mean that they were wearing a trench coat with five o'clock shadow or what-not, old noir people, he meant that he wants to turn his readers into the sort of detectives who are working to formulate ideas on the clues that they're seeing on the page. The reader interacts with one, reader interacts with two, reader interacts with three, and she's starting to figure out who she thinks these people are, and why they're behaving this way. We have to put pressure on ourselves to make sure that we're revealing new aspects of our characters on a scene by scene basis. And this works for both non-fiction and fiction, I have a memoir coming out next January, and I used these same exact plaracterization principles when I was putting the book together. So what we're trying to figure out is how can the reader be active? How can the reader be a participant? Lars Von Trier the filmmaker talks about leaving open the avenues of interpretation, so the audience gets to be involved, gets to be there, gets to problem solve. Why that's important, and how that relates to this word new is that we don't wanna have monochromatic characterizations. You don't wanna say the same thing over and over and over about a character. So say for example in the first scene of a story, we see somebody do something disgusting. Or something cruel. Let's say someone's walking down the street and a homeless man asks for a dollar, person's drinking iced coffee, squeezes the lid a little bit, throws his coffee in the homeless person's face. And as the reader, we say, I don't like you very much. You're not supposed to treat other people like that. Just because you probably make more money, you still should act with grace. Don't do that. Don't be malicious. So we've sort of put that person, or assigned a station on that characterization spectrum that we were talking about earlier. That person's closer to Darth Vader than he is Luke Skywalker. So since you've just told me that aspect of his nature in scene one, don't tell me the same thing in scene two. In scene two, tell me something that's gonna force me to realign my expectations. So if I saw him be a bastard in scene one, what if in scene two, I see him act with magnanimity. What if I see him act with generosity. Throws the coffee in the person's face, hops on the subway, goes to work, gets there and his assistant's crying. What's wrong? Somebody threw a fan through my car's back window, my deductible's two thousand bucks, this repair's gonna cost 19 hundred dollars, that's my rent. I don't have that, what am I gonna do. And without skipping a beat, whips out a checkbook, people still have checkbooks? Let's just pretend for the sake of argument that this person has a checkbook, writes a check for 19 hundred dollars and gives it to her, and the scene ends. So as the audience, we say, well wait a minute. I had you firmly planted over here in Bastard Town, USA, and now I saw you do something sort of altruistic. It doesn't excuse, by any stretch of the imagination, what you did before, but it complicates my relationship with you. Does that make sense, what I'm saying? So we're trying, with each subsequent scene, we're not writing toward clarity. That's a very big misconception. What we're writing toward is complication. We want scene one to be complicated by scene two, we want scene two to be complicated by scene three, that's where dynamic characterization lives. We're resisting the easy answers. This is a good person over here. This is a bad person over here. That's boring, that's not what life is like. I wanna see somebody throw a coffee in somebody's face, and then the next blip, see them do something generous. And as a reader, I say, now what am I supposed to do with that? And once your reader's asking questions like that, she's eating out of the palm of our hands. She's invested. Her detective antennas are up and she's saying, well, what's he gonna do next? What's gonna happen in scene four? What's gonna happen in scene five? So on and so forth, so we can see how writing toward clarity would obfuscate that from us. Writing toward complication invites the reader to participate. It says to the reader, I think you're a smart person, and I think you're capable of putting the pieces together for yourself, and I respect you enough that I'm just going to turn you loose and see what you do with the system of images that comprise this story. So notice that we're building on kind of the mapping images from this morning, but we're also thinking about the likeability versus relatability, right? So if a story starts with somebody throwing a cup of coffee in someone's face, most of us aren't gonna like that person. And if you do like that person, you might get a therapist and start working some of this stuff out, just between me and you. But if we have that assignment first, that emotional assignment, that emotional impression, this person can be cruel. And then we see him act generously. Maybe he's so rich that that would be like me giving somebody five bucks. Maybe 19 hundred dollars is nothing to him. So is it still a nice gesture? How are we gonna tune these things to take advantage of the dissonances here? Assignment, emotional assignment one in scene one, emotional assignment two in scene two, forcing that act of realignment. Inviting your audience to be in active participation in the scenes. Plaracterization, then, as a word, is obviously some mash up of the words plot and characterization. P-L, right? Stay with me, comes from plot, got it? And so what we're doing with plot, if plot basically is what happens in a story. If you go to a movie, and you come home and your sister says what's the movie about, you tell them about the plot. You tell them kind of like the externalities of what happened in that particular moment. What we're thinking about here is plot being dictated by that character's specificity. That character's spiritual side. That character's existential side. The particulars that make that person unique. We talked about the fingerprint of the imagination, now we can kind of turn it to our characters and say the fingerprint of the consciousness. This person is unlike anybody else that your reader's ever met before. We looked through the eyes of Holden Caulfield when we read Catcher in the Rye. But we've never looked through the eyes of your particular character. So the main star, the protagonist in your story will be dictating future plot points based on what she's doing, or what he's doing, with the current plot point. Does that make sense, what I'm saying so far? Let's look at a quick example, and then we'll do another exercise. Let's say that there's this guy. Let's say that there's this guy who's in some sort of training. He doesn't know exactly what he's training for, but he's working out three hours a day, he's training on the ground, he's a grappler, he knows Judo, he's a striker. He's preparing for some sort of quest, but he doesn't know exactly what that quest is, but he's going to be ready when that quest comes. Goes to the gym on a Thursday night, has a good workout, afterward he's walking home, walks by 7-11, decides to stop in and get a Gatorade. Walks into the store, opens the cooler, gets a Gatorade, walks up to the register to pay, all of a sudden someone walks in the front door with a pistol. Points the pistol at our hero, don't move. Points the pistol at the clerk, give me the money. Don't move, give me the money, don't move, give me the money. And our guy, who's been waiting for this, had never factored in a certain mechanism called self-preservation. And he freezes. As is want to happen, when someone points a gun at you. And he falls to his knees. And the robbery goes off without a hitch. Clerk decides it's probably in my best interest to hand over the money. Hands over the money, robber leaves, and everything's fine, right? Not for this person. Not for this person who felt like he was primed to rise to the occasion. To be a warrior, to be ready when he was called upon, and suddenly he sees one little handgun, and he desiccates? And he falls to the floor? I mean, the shame he's feeling, like the ignominy that is washing over him is just unparalleled. It's like nothing else he's ever experienced before. So from a plaracterization standpoint, if the story starts like that, is that a plot push, or is that furthering characterization? Well, it's both. The scene is doing all the heavy lifting. We wouldn't have to have a litany describing this person 'cause the scene has done all the work for us. And now we wanna use the particulars of what makes that person that person. How's he gonna solve this problem? How's he gonna figure out a way to right this wrong? Keep in mind that nobody else on the planet would solve this problem this way. But that's what we're trying to do, we're gonna play to his idiosyncratic mind. And to this person, it is obvious that the only way to solve this problem is to stakeout various 7-11s around town, and spend all day in them, waiting to witness another robbery. And when another robbery happens, he's gonna be ready. He'd never seen a gun before, it's okay to get spooked. But the second time, he's gonna be ready, and he's gonna do it. So now, all of a sudden, we've thrown an obstacle in his path, this robbery. We've seen him not behave the way he wants himself to behave and we've seen him try to solve the problem in his own way. It only has to make sense to your character. That's the idiosyncratic part of all this. Don't look for something that would make sense to everybody. I want to see the guy hiding behind the Doritos next to the malt liquor in the back, right, like waiting for an armed robbery to happen. One month, two months, three months, four months, no robberies. It's getting to the point where he feels like he's getting a little itchy, you know? Like maybe you can manufacture something. So far I've found this guy to be pretty likable. I feel bad for him, he's some sort of man boy, whatever. But I know what it's like, obviously I'm not an MMA trainer, but I know what it's like to feel like I'm capable of doing something great, and I certainly know what it's like to fail at those things. I've had some bond with this person start to forge. And now that I've established that, I wanna complicate it. I wanna visit some more trouble here. So what if he's hiding in the back behind the Doritos, and somebody walks in, another young man who's been over-served. He's not doing anything wrong, he's loud, he's obnoxious, and he's an easy target. He buys what he needs to buy and he goes outside, and our guy follows him out the door and puts a beating on him. What am I supposed to do with that as a reader? This was my guy, I liked him. And we were in this together, we're like the shame brigade. And now all of a sudden he does this like, merciless thing. It challenges me as a reader, that realignment. This person who I had felt empathy with, or for, suddenly I'm like, I don't know if I can ride with you anymore, man. I don't know if we're on the same team anymore. So I'm challenging my own assumptions about a character as the story progresses. So all of these things are scene-oriented. The robbery, the way he's going to solve that problem, and the beating he puts on this guy. But all of those scenes reveal new aspects of who they are, and all of those scenes make me an active participant. 'Cause some readers at that point, after he puts the beating on him might be like, I can't, I can't go, I can't do that. It becomes this car wreck paradigm. Are you gonna keep reading to see how bad it's gonna get? And some people will be like, oh, god, I wish he hadn't do that, but I'm hoping he's gonna pull it together by the end of the story, or the essay, or the novel, and I'm gonna keep reading it, that's a connection. That's when your audience is emotionally invested, that's what we're trying to do. This man that we'll never meet, who lives in Detroit, Michigan. Or this woman that we'll never meet from Tuscaloosa, Alabama can have an organic emotional response based on words on a page. How cool is that? So long as we take the time to pick the right images, and trust. Trust that if we employ plaracterization, if we employ this idea of characters characterizing themselves, rather than the author sort of superimposing structure, if we do those things, that's when the collaboration between author and reader has the potential to get really really exciting. So what I'd like to do is an exercise here based on the consequences of the dog-napping scene from earlier. Much like we just did with that liquor store robbery, I wanna start thinking about the relationship between scenes, or maybe a better way to think about it is the consequences of our characters' actions. So, for example, this woman had a very good reason to steal that dog, right? Like we know in her heart of hearts, that was the right thing to do. And in that first moment that we wrote, we allowed her to sell it. Your example is perfect, the power of the rationalization. This is why I did it! Obviously, this was the right thing to do. And now we're gonna challenge that in the second scene with some consequences. Because that dog should've been back to the SPCA at 2:30. It's four. So someone's gonna come to her house, you can take it any direction that you want, here, animal control, the cops, maybe just somebody from the SPCA who's just hoping that they can like, not have to do anything official. Take it however you wanna take it, but I wanna see some sort of, doesn't necessarily have to be an argument, but this moment in which she's confronted with the consequences for her action. 'Cause so far our exercises have been sort of one-offs, a scene here, a scene here, and now I wanna starting thinking about causality, cause and effect. This scene, number two in this kind of chain that we're building, would only exist based on what happened in scene one. In scene one, she stole the dog, and in scene two, there's going to be some consequences. The police, animal control, whomever, come to take back the dog, and what happens? Again, I try to leave these prompts as open ended as I can, so your imagination has the freedom to take it in any direction that it sees fit. Does that make sense what we're gonna do? Gonna write scene two of the dog-nappers? Any questions from you, Drew?
Any questions from you guys? All right, happy writing.. So how did that feel in terms of now thinking about building on something? Rather than having the one off. Did it feel a little, were you trying to do some more nimble gymnastics in your head to keep these things straight, or was it pretty self-explanatory because you had a sense of who this person was, because you'd already written a scene about her earlier this morning? And please make sure we're passing the mics if you're gonna answer.
I just felt like it was, the second scene was just sort of an extension of the first, then.
From the perspective of, I mean, 'cause the character's already established in the first scene, and all that's gonna happen to her, I mean her character is gonna say the same thing too, right, so, you're just kind of building off of that.
Yep, no, I think what you're getting at it spot on that there's gonna be this kind of symbiosis building on the things that have been established. And then, maybe she'll change, this is kind of an age-old argument, does a character have to change during the scope of a narrative, and I would say she absolutely does not have to change, but she has to be presented with the opportunity to change. And some people will take those opportunities, some people will learn from their mistakes, and others of us have a difficult time learning from our mistakes. We're more works-in-progress. Would you be willing, since you already have the mic, would you be willing to read yours to us?
Uh, sure. I mean, they considered Pavlov to be right. Like, people justified his actions, right? What he did was considered to be good and an overall benefit, isn't it? But did anyone consider where he got his dogs from? Perhaps those dogs being trained didn't have the consciousness to know that they were being trained, but nonetheless they were still being trained. I know I wouldn't wanna be trained. Maybe he got his dogs from the street, little mutts whose existences would've been better as trained animals than just animals. I'm a better owner than Pavlov and Pavlov was good, right? Ma'am, I'm sorry to say that when discussing the manner of theft there are two sides, good and bad, theft being bad. Not only are your actions reprehensible, but you are also the subject to the law. You don't understand, you just don't.
Great. It's interesting, too, if one person in a conversation is presenting a binary, this is right, this is wrong, simple. And then the other person is being like, there's no binary whatsoever, it's just pure, pure gray, those two people are certainly never gonna get along, and we can use that dissonance between their set of perceptions to our advantage to continue to build on. Cool man, thanks. And I feel like, you know, as a writer, it requires us to spend so much time alone in a room, hours and days, missing barbecues, missing birthday parties, that when we actually get together, when we're around people who dig words the way that we dig words, who value literature the way that we value literature, community is so important for us. If it's just us alone in our C drive, it can be difficult to finish your book, or your essay. But if you can find some sort of kind of community that you can sort of lean on, it really helps to sort of, to humanize the experience. And whether you can do that through like digital portals at Creative Live, or trying to start kind of writing groups in your neighborhood or hometown. Community is important for us, otherwise it can be, it can be a lonely enterprise, this writing thing. And to piggy-back on that, too, I also feel like that's another way for us to incorporate more fun into our writing process. I think fun is very important. Maybe you can white-knuckle through a draft or two, with just like rabid dedication. But eventually if you haven't established a writing routine that you're deriving fun from, I don't think you'll finish your book. I can tell when I'm struggling with a novel because my bathroom is spotless. Like I would rather scrub a toilet than finish my book. And then sometimes it's just about getting out of my cocoon and being around other people who dig words, and that can often help me be like, oh yeah, just relax, have fun, follow the characters.