I was reading a thread about fridging on AW today–fridging is the practice of heaping torment on some side character to give motivation to the protagonist, based on a Green Lantern comic where his girl-friend was murdered and stuffed in a fridge and this was his motivation for the revenge plot–and it highlighted something to me that I think we often miss when we compare stories based on their focus.
There has long been a dichotomy in the study of literature involving the over-focus of a particular story on either its plot–a characteristic commonly attributed to the trashiest commercial fiction–or on its character, an allegation commonly leveled at literary fiction during debates on the prestige of various forms of writing. It’s an argument with a lot of history and occasionally acrimony, and much like with fridging, I think a lot of people who participate in it are really missing the point.
The more sophisticated participants don’t get caught up in the literary vs, commercial fiction arguments, instead focusing on reader/writer preference, but even still I think most of them are thinking in too simplistic of terms and miss the subtle nuances that underlie the real issue.
First, I want to point out that it’s also possible to have a setting driven story, a complaint often made against science fiction and fantasy dealing with extensive description or focus on world-building, and it’s also possible to have an over-focus on theme. Fairy tales, for instance, often lack plot or character nuance because they are created to express a theme or moral to their audience.
But the real issue goes back to my example of fridging. First, I want to look at the issue from the side of so-called plot driven fiction. What plot-driven fiction does when dealing with characters is to take short-cuts in characterization based on common tropes. For example, killing the protagonist’s wife/girl-friend/sister/daughter/mother to provide motivation for the plot. Or the hero’s journey trope of call-to-action/refusal/submission, where rather than having a unique personal motivation to approach the quest, the character is forced into it by circumstance. Or in a crime story, where a character is thrust into action by being framed by the real culprit or suspected by the authorities. Although these can be valid and complex motivations, to often, as with the female in the fridge, they are treated as short-cuts needing little development, as the audience is familiar with the motivation. Sister raped and murdered -> Male character is off, no further thought required.
On the side of character-driven fiction, the complaint is often that the character thinks too much, rather than too little. This is described as whining or angst, or wimpy-ness. many times, the reader of commercial fiction wonders why the lit-fic hero doesn’t get off is ass and do what needs to be done, isn’t it obvious what should happen? This is an attitude inculcated in readers by the ubiquitous use of sign-posts in commercial fiction.
But this view to me is too simplistic. Sign-posts exist for a reason. They have uses, and they can be very effective. Many commercial fiction writers have been sign-posting to get through tricky motivational issues without “bogging down the reader” in internal monologue and to jump straight into the “exciting” parts of the story. But what they should really be using them for is to give the reader a way to relate to the character, while exploring how specific circumstances create an unique motivation for the character, rather than relying on generic reader outrage. Too often the character is fridged, and then its off to the races, never looking back to consider why that character was special to the protagonist and what specifically about the fridging event is motivating the character. That exploration should be informing the morals and the lengths to which the protagonist is willing to go to get justice for the act, and not just an excuse to have a swash-buckling, fire-fight heavy adventure with a pass for any bad acts committed during.
The distinction between character-driven and plot-driven fiction does exist, but it’s neither as clear-cut or as blatant as the various detractors of each focus make it sound. It’s not all cookie-cutter archetypes and protracted passive wangsting, but rather a subtle misunderstanding of the various tools of writing. Neither the external nor the internal arcs of the story can stand alone.
You can certainly have weak or under-developed character arcs, or a meandering plot full of holes, but the idea that one element precludes development in the other is false. Although the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses is basically discredited, I think we can still argue that by imposing these terms on our fiction, we’re creating a false impression that it’s relevant to a well-made final product, and it isn’t. However you arrive at your storyline, the actual book should never reflect your behind-the-scenes methodology.
Finally, there is another less common way of looking at the issue, which is based on the idea that a premise is a promise by the writer to the reader where the writer asks questions and then answers them. From this perspective, a plot-driven story is where the primary question/promise is based on the external narrative arc, and a character-driven story is where the primary promise involves the internal character arc. But even here, a good book doesn’t lack in its promise about the other arc. The two arcs still influence each other. It’s simply that the book makes clear that the climax-resolution is molded more around one arc, while the resolution of the other is a consequence hinging on the main resolution.