Sunday, September 21, 2008

Gaaah!! -- A Musing on Characters and Plot

So I just taped down a box that contained, I was sure, the absolute last unpacked book in my apartment besides the ones I'll be reading in the next week (Seaward, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Lady of Quality). And then I saw The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles lurking sinisterly in a corner of my bookcase! Gaahh!! It is a good book to have lurking around, however. . . . From my very favorite chapter, number thirteen, whose first line made me catch my breath aloud when I first read it (this is not that first line, for the record):

You may think that novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. But novelists write for countless different reasons: for money, for fame, for reviewers, for parents, for friends, for loved ones; for vanity, for pride, for curiosity, for amusement: as skilled furniture makers enjoy making furniture, as drunkards like drinking, as judges like judging, as Sicilians like emptying a shotgun into an enemy's back. I could fill a book with reasons, and they would all be true, though not true of all. Only one reason is shared by all of us: We wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was. This is why we cannot plan. We know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world. It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live. When Charles left Sarah on her cliff edge, I ordered him to walk straight back to Lyme Regis. But he did not; he gratuitously turned and went down to the Dairy.

Oh, but you say, come on -- what I really mean is that the idea crossed my mind as I wrote it that it might be more clever to have him stop and drink milk . . . and meet Sarah again. That is certainly one explanation of what happened; but I can only report -- and I am the most reliable witness -- that the idea seemed to me to come clearly from Charles, not myself. It is not only that he has begun to gain an autonomy; I must respect it, and disrespect all my quasi-divine plans for him, if I wish him to be real.

In other words, to be free myself, I must give him, and Tina, and Sarah, even the abominable Mrs. Poulteney, their freedom as well. There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist. And I must conform to that definition. The novelist is still a god, since he creates (and not even the most aleatory avant-garde modern novel has managed to extirpate its author completely); what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle, not authority.
I must say that as an editor who loves structure, planning, intelligent design, the first paragraph makes my heart sink a bit. I have been that person saying, "Oh, come on," to an author who insists, "But that's what he did!", and thinking in response, "Well, can't you make him do something more useful to the plot?"

I have very mixed feelings about this reaction whenever I have it. On the one hand, I know absolutely (and I learn over and over again) that the best books are driven by their characters, not their plots or structure, and you have to give the characters their heads and room to run. On the other, I think the characters have to earn that freedom through their reality and complexity; and if they're not achieving that, in my view as a reader, then the author's protestations sound like excuses for silly digressions or plot developments. And then the work that needs to be done is either A) showing us more of the character to make the supposedly silly developments make sense -- after all, the author has full access to the character's backstory and psychology, so of course the character's behavior seems perfectly natural. But we readers don't have that access, so perhaps the author needs to add a scene or narration revealing more of those for us. Or else B) revising said developments. Or sometimes C) both.

The thing about the example Fowles offers here is that Charles's behavior is not only realistic as that of a complex human being, it is useful to the plot -- it gets him back in contact with Sarah, which furthers his attraction to her, which furthers his internal conflict (he's engaged to someone else), which makes the plot engine go chugga chugga chugga forward. And therefore it wouldn't have raised my hackles as an editor, no matter how nonsensical his (Charles's) decision to go back to the Dairy may be on the surface. Also, this is a deeply existential novel, in case you couldn't tell from the excerpt, where Man (Charles) does not have a Fate but only a series of decisions, which are interrogated and commented upon by the narrator; as existential meaninglessness is part of the point, events don't have to add up the way they do in Victorian novels, as Fowles says here. And those are the kinds of novels I usually like (and edit), I have to say.

Anyway, much to think about there, as there is in all of The French Lieutenant's Woman. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend getting a copy to lurk around your bookshelves too.


  1. I predict you will love The Disreputable History. (Are you one of those people who hates to be set up with too-high expectations? If so, then I predict you will...find it mediocre.) I read it last week. I was drawn in by the back cover synopsis, but actually found it deeper and better than the cover suggested. I'd love to hear what you think when you get to it.

  2. And I predict you will love One Hundred Years of Solitude...which for no good reason is what came to mind as I read the passage you quoted.

  3. SOunds incredibly interesting. What I like most here is that these are things (the first para) that probably every person who writes, or wants to, thinks about, but it is usually subconscious. To have it penned down so clearly is not only amazingly helpful, but also pleasantly surprising.

    Oh, and Happy Birthday!

  4. I want to know what the first line is.

  5. i'm not a native speaker of English, and I couln't understand the line"as Sicilians like emptying a shotgun into an enemy's back. " in quotation.
    Can you help me out?

  6. Ceil, the island of Sicily (off the coast of Italy) is famous as the place where the Mafia originated. Therefore, it's a stereotype that Sicilians are violent people, fond of (and good at) killing.