Plotcharacter

“Way is obscured when men understand only one of a pair of opposites, or concentrate on only a partial aspect of being. Then clear expression also becomes muddied by mere wordplay, affirming this one aspect and denying the rest.” –Zhuangzi

The “duckrabbit” was used by Wittgenstein as an example of our ability to see something in more than one way. People can look at the duckrabbit and see it as being either a rabbit or a duck. Another common example of this is the Necker cube, which humans can mentally interpret as a box, and do so in two different ways. One of the important human cognitive abilities is being able to escape from mental ruts. We only become liberated and free when we can see the world in more than one way.

In “Rereading Clarke” by Robert Silverberg, the point is made that Arthur Clarke could tell a story that was “compelling to us despite all its literary shortcomings”. Silverberg said that Clarke’s work, “always struck me, despite their passages of great conceptual inventiveness, as dull, slow, and passionless.”

Apparently there are two aspects of science fiction stories: 1) on one hand, there is what many readers of science fiction are looking for and 2) on the other hand, there is what constitutes “good literature”, according to literary pundits. The question becomes, can a science fiction story that gets labeled as a literary train wreck be improved by applying to it, “the tricks of the storytelling trade, the array of technical devices that professional writers use to draw readers into a story and hold them there“? Or, possibly, are some science fiction fans actually turned off by literary finesse?

It seems that science fiction stories can be developed in several different ways that appeal to different audiences. Some people want action, some want “conceptual inventiveness” and some people want literary finesse. Of course, some people expect to find more than one of these in a story.

In “Character development versus plot development in fiction writing“, Del Antonio states that he is disappointed if a story fails to develop either “the objective story (plot) [or] the subjective story (characters)”, but I’m not sure that all science fiction fans are so picky.

I’ve seen critics of Isaac Asimov complain about his poor development of characters. “He’s happy to be the acknowledged master of the talky story of cardboard characters, clever plotting, hard science and contention of ideas.” Millions of Asimov fans do not seem to care if Asimov had stories full of cardboard characters.

Jack Vance is in some ways the mirror image of Asimov. Sometimes Vance seems to luxuriate in the process of creating quirky characters, possibly to the point of creating distractions. One of these seemingly extraneous characters is Mr. Ailett Mayneth of Starport, on the planet New Concept (in The Book of Dreams). Mayneth is only a minor character, but the Protagonist of the story (Kith Gersen) even makes an interstellar journey to New Concept just to talk to Mayneth. Although Gersen and Mayneth do get to have lunch together, in the hands of most authors, the small amount of information that Gersen gets from Mayneth would not come by way of a ten page chapter and needless strain on the Jarnell. However, I doubt if any Vance fan would complain. Vance’s ability to have fun with his imagination and the creation of picturesque little worlds and quirky characters never seems to become a distraction. However, such an indulgence (and worse, strings of them) just would not suit an Asimov story. I find it easy to appreciate both Vance and Asimov for their very different styles.

However, I think I have to agree that I am most satisfied when an author can “do it all”, allowing us to take pleasure in viewing a story in multiple ways, for example, by having both an interesting plot and interesting characters.

Sometimes I have the feeling that an author has fallen in love with one of their characters. In science fiction, I’m most impressed when that can happen under unusual circumstances, such as when a character is not human. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make non-human characters interesting and appealing to readers. In The Start of Eternity, most of the characters are either aliens or robots. Asimov did a great job with several of his robot characters (particularly R. Daneel Olivaw), making them interesting in a non-human way. A character such as Spock, a half human, does not really strike me as being “alien enough” to be a real challenge in this department. The Q character is somewhat more interesting as a god-like being who we can relate to, but what interests me most is an alien that we can appreciate for its non-human traits.

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Gordon Hamilton wrote, “When the basis of the plot has been both established and drafted, the writer can turn their attention to character development.” I think this “plot first, characters second” approach comes naturally to science fiction fans. It is fun to look on the internet and see fan fiction extensions of popular science fiction novels that were published by the Masters. Many of the fan fiction works have a very streamlined development of the plot, sometimes little more than a sketch of the story idea. This is a great way for fans to explore ideas, particularly when the original author left a story line dangling in a way that frustrates the fans. Here in the internet age, it would be fun if professional writers would use their websites to extend invitations for their fans to suggest new plot ideas. If the author liked an idea from a fan then the suggested plot could be “fleshed out” by the “Master”.

Alternatively, there can be collaborations where one person might imagine a plot idea while others could develop the characters. In my experience, participating in that kind of online collaboration is a great way to learn about writing. Historically, writing has been largely a personal endeavor. It will be interesting to see to what extent online collaboration allows a greater level of cooperation between fiction writers. Novelas, the fiction wikia, is a website for exploring collaborative fiction writing, a place where we can learn together to appreciate and develop plotcharacter.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki

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