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On Throwing Characters Under the Wheels of Plot

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Apr. 15th, 2011 | 06:29 pm
mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

Usually, I prefer character-centered books to plot-centered ones. I like it best when both elements are strong - as in, say, The Hunger Games - but if I had to choose (and, you know, sometimes you do), I'd generally go with characters.


Reading the *sniffle* last-ever Redwall book, The Sable Quean, followed immediately with Treasure Island, has made me think about another kind of focus I like: strategy. While strategy and character are not mutually exclusive, focusing on tactics does tend to scale back the psychological impact of, say, character death. Or at least villainous character death.

Reaction Stages of a POV Character who Kills Someone by Necessity in a Character-driven Story:
  1. Horror: "OH GODS WHAT HAVE I DONE?"

  2. Shock: *Huddles, glassy-eyed, in a corner*

  3. Rationalization: "It was them or me and/or my friends!"

  4. PTSD: *Has nightmares*

  5. Lifelong consequences: *Is never the same*

Reaction Stages of a POV Character who Kills Someone by Necessity in a Strategy-driven Story:
  1. Triumph: "Good shot, me!"

  2. Mathematics: "Now they only have X pirates left to our Y good guys, giving us Z odds!" (Seriously, read Treasure Island. Jim devotes a lot of mental energy to keeping track of the Pirates-to-Heroes ratio.)

There are definitely places in between these extremes. See again The Hunger Games, wherein Katniss is far from heartless, yet reacts the deaths of almost two dozen semi-innocent to completely-innocent kids and teenagers, with few exceptions, much the way Jim reacts to the deaths of pirates. (Notably absent is the "triumph" stage.)

Some of my teenagerhood love of the Redwall books came from the fascinating, if rather cold-blooded, tactical portrayals of violence. Expendable baddies allowed me to learn about siege warfare! They also served as a concrete way of determining whether progress was being made in the plot: Bad guys are obstacles. Take a few out, and you're that much closer to happily ever after! Go team!

Some fiction avoids the ethical squirminess of this stance by making the bad guys into something it's okay to destroy, like droids. Maybe they're just sort of okay to destroy, like murderous pirates. Either way, the story steps in front of any psychological implications of the violence with a grin and a, "Nothing to see here!" And, despite my usual character-centric tastes, I sympathize: I don't want to follow up the exciting, but ultimately doomed, battering-ram attack on Redwall with the funerals of two hundred rats and weasels, plus lamenting on how they never really had a chance for a better life.

One could probably make a scale of how much books fall into this category, perhaps defined by how introspective and empathetic their POV characters (or narrators) are.

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Comments {3}

"Also, I can kill you with my brain."

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from: toastedcheese
date: Apr. 16th, 2011 07:27 pm (UTC)

It's interesting to fit, say, The Iliad in this grid - full of political intrigue and fairly complex skirmishes, but also full of serious pathos and angst when people from either side die.

This weird juxtaposition is shown by Homer's verbal formula when a death occurs - first he describes how awesome the attack was and the exact trajectory with which the spear goes through the guy's body, with various fluids spurting out, and then he takes a moment to reflect on how the poor guy will never go back home to the farm and see his wife and kids. It's pretty messed up.

Basically for Homer war is both heroic and awful at the same time, and only his Greek Stoicism allows him to feel both ways at once. Figuring out how to express that warfare is both exciting and really really terrible is much trickier with our modern sensibilities, so usually people choose one side or the other.

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from: angeladegroot
date: Apr. 17th, 2011 12:37 pm (UTC)

I'd never given this any thought before - thanks for the interesting post. I know it will be circulating in my subconscious as I read now.

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Anica Lewis

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from: anicalewis
date: Apr. 18th, 2011 01:35 pm (UTC)

Glad you like it!

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