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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


Lost won; Fringe is frayed: a study of character vs. plot

Okay, lame title for a comparison of JJ Abrams series.

For the past several weeks I've been embroiled in an on-and-off argument with a friend of mine. It relates to how we define quality writing and how we use the terms "literary" and "genre," among other things. (I use "literary" in a positive way and until recently had been using "genre" derogatorily; she extols the virtues of "genre" and uses "literary" derogatorily, though she also considers "literary" as a kind of genre itself. This latter point I cannot disagree with and I've come to shift terms, describing the schlock I once called "genre" as "Wal-Mart fiction" or "airport novels.")

One of the issues we've hit on in our debate is the importance of plot versus the importance of character. And last night, I stumbled across an interesting comparison of the two approaches: I watched the pilot episode of Fringe, the new JJ Abrams series on Fox, and found myself comparing it to Abrams's creation Lost on ABC. Fringe, I would argue, is a plot-driven series (or, at least, the pilot was, and from what I saw of the series teaser and from what I've read in reviews, the rest of the series follows that formula). Lost, my friend and I have often agreed, is character-driven.

But, to return for a moment to the argument of craft and writing: My friend (who is finishing a PhD in creative writing from the same program I earned my degree from) has observed that most writing teachers avoid teaching or even refuse to teach plot. She contends that some people choose not to teach plot because they fail to understand plot beyond its basic elements. But I have to wonder if no one teaches more than the basics of plot because there is no more beyond the basics. Plot, in my experience, is a basic element, quickly understood and mimicked. I suppose one might look for ways to go about constructing complexity in plots, strategies for creating intricate patterns of action (I do--it's an area I continue to work on, usually without much success), but then we'd be teaching formula, which is a very different sort of writing, and it can be found more easily and more appropriately in books on the subject than it could in a classroom.

I was glad to stumble across a similar idea in the comments of Robin McKinley, a sometimes-YA author whom many would probably label a "genre" writer, though I want to argue she manages to transcend the trappings of genre and write with a literary attention to art. I've only read the one book so far, her fascinating vampire/sci-fi novel Sunshine, but the writing was good enough that I plan to read more. I also looked her up to see what she has to say about the craft, and I discovered a handful of comments in her FAQs online.

McKinley professes to be an inspiration writer, claiming her stories "come to her" or "happen to her" as though through a muse; she barely claims ownership of her own work. But that doesn't prevent her from being aware of her process and the influence she has over the stories that happen to her. She does acknowledge what my friend is seeking--the need for instruction in how to construct plots: "One of the trickiest bits about writing a story is getting the connections to look inevitable," she writes in one section of her FAQ. "When I've managed to put a scene in the wrong place, it's not merely a question of putting it in the right place; I have to rewrite all the connections too — including checking all other scenes in the vicinity to make sure there aren't references to the newly-moved scene in its old location." But she claims to have learned how to accomplish this from exactly the sources I'd have expected: not in a classroom but in books.
You can also learn a lot by sheer plagiarism, so long as you recognise that that is what it is and that it's only a writing exercise. I wrote an awful lot of very bad Tolkien pastiche when I was younger — I didn't realise what I was doing at first, but even when I began to, later on, I could see that I was learning a lot about characterisation and plot development, how you get people from one place to another, how much background you need, how to slip in information your story is going to need later, how to lay a good ambush for the innocent reader — and so I kept on with it, when I couldn't think of any stories of my own.
I love McKinley's comments because (and I suspect this is true for most writers) they sound familiar to me. I was writing great plots when I was 14 years old. Really fascinating, action-packed narratives, stories about drug dealers and alien races and genetic experiments gone wrong. But they were cartoony, with broad outlines and only four colors. I needed the attention to detail and the nuances of a nearly psychological focus on character to make my fiction live, to make it real. I'll grant you, I'd have liked more concrete suggestions on how to go back and recombine those things, but then, I don't believe it's always necessary. John Irving does--he says fiction begins and ends with plot, and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. But I disagree. I can pick up a textbook on natural science and read about the formation of the planet, and it'll be rife with plot--the world is full of conflict and action and resolution and even narrative arcs, and we don't need people to create those. But it's not story--it's science.

Alternatively, you can drop a character in an empty white room and take away all the doors and windows, and you can still have a compelling and fascinating story. There is no plot at all--nothing to accomplish, no physical action--but there's plenty of character, and I say that's where fiction begins and ends. I'm oversimplifying, I know--to simply drop in a character and describe their situation and environment is, at best, a sketch, so if the fiction is to be successful, the plot will develop from the character, and our lonely soul in the white room will slowly go mad trying to escape or else become enlightened in the acceptance of their fate, and this would be the plot. (The film Johnny Got His Gun--source text for Metallica's epic "One"--deals with an even better scenario, in which a man is hit by a mortar shell and winds up with both arms and both legs amputated, blinded by the flash and deafened by the roar of impact, and his spine severed in such a way that he's lost all sense of touch or taste or smell. He is literally left as only a mind, alone in the dark, deprived of everything--including "plot." And yet, from this, we receive narrative.) But my point is, if we write a plot and then try to place characters into it, we have a terribly difficult time making those characters believable or interesting, whereas if we write a character and then see what happens to them, the sky's the limit plotwise and we might also stumble upon art. This, I would argue, is the mode of probably 85%, maybe 90% of all contemporary literary art.

Anne Lamott agrees, I'm happy to say. In her book Bird by Bird--a simple text on writing, famous for its often-anthologized chapter "Shitty First Drafts"--she writes a chapter on "Plot":
Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.

Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you've dreamed up. Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. I say don't worry about plot. Worry about the characters.
Which brings me back to JJ Abrams.

My friend and I are both Lost fans. (I would say "fanatics," but I've read some of the Lostpedia, and I know how obsessive the real fanatics can be, so I won't diminish their devotion to the show by claiming to be one of them.) We both love the show for similar reasons, and when we both first began geeking out over Lost, we mentioned how terrifically character-driven the show is. I've read interviews with Abrams and the other creators expressing exactly this intent: that the show was intended as a study of characters, both of individual characters and of their interactions with each other. Whatever plot developed (and until recently the writers freely admitted that there was no plot--they were just making things up as they went), the story was directly dependent on the nature of the characters. The pilot episode of Lost begins with a close-up on Jack's eye precisely to illustrate that whatever we're about to see is going to be through Jack's experience, from his perspective, focused (if you'll excuse the pun) on Jack's character. And, true to form, most of the first-season episodes begin in the same way--a close-up on a character's eyes to hint at that episode's focus on that character. The show dropped the visual device eventually, but with the exception of a few season-three missteps, it has never abandoned its focus on character. Yet it also boasts some of the most complex plotting in the history of television, and it does this not through any speculative sci-fi formulas but through following the natural developments and possible interactions (a Buddhist would say interdependence) of its characters.

Last night's pilot for Fringe, co-created by Abrams, lost all that magic and settled instead for the coincidences, conveniences, and forced developments of a plot-driven narrative. Like Lost, it begins with a plane crash, and like Lost, it relies on some vast underlying conspiracy and strange, inexplicable events to set up the situations in which the characters exist. But the characters are never characters. They're "Sort of Smart but Really Just Lucky FBI Agent," "FBI Agent's Lover Who Is Also An Agent," "Creepy Boss Who Seems At First to Be A Jerk But Who Really Has a Secret Agenda," "Mad Scientist" (I'm not making this up--it gets that cliche), "Mad Scientist's Brilliant But Edgy Son," and, of course, "The Villain." We're never expected to question these characters or really even care about them--we begin the story with "an incident" on a plane (all shock and horror, but not much substance), which thrusts our agents into the plot without more than a 30-second introduction, and the "action" (if you can call it that) railroads us through the rest of the episode. There is no concern on the part of the writers for who these people are, why they do what they do, what the implications are for them. They are tools in the story.

This is why Fringe failed for me as a show, and it serves as an interesting example of my problem with formulaic, plot-driven narrative as opposed to the introspective, character-driven narrative exemplified by Lost. Even though they're from the same creator.

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