Um... Who's Driving? (The Story, I Mean)

Author R.J. Anderson poses an interesting writing question over at her Livejournal:

I’ve seen a couple of criticisms cropping up in reviews lately — not reviews of my own books necessarily, but of some very fine books by other authors. They’re often stated somewhat crankily, as though they are universal rules and every author worth her word count ought to know better than to flout them — but as a matter of fact they are comparatively recent expectations, and not ones that every reader shares or, I think, even needs to.

The criticisms are, as follows:

  1. The protagonist must drive the plot at all times;

and

  1. Any development which is surprising to the characters must also be surprising to the reader.

She provides her response to criticism #1 here and follows it up with her response to criticism #2 here.

It’s an interesting topic. As an author and a reader, I know it has been said that the main character in a book should not be passive. Our hero is supposed to be a person who acts, not stands still. A silent, unmoving observer of events is essentially nothing more than a narrator, and the readers’ interest tends to gravitate towards the characters who are actually doing something. Then there is the frequent complaint of “Deus Ex Machina”, where the unlikely resolution to the hero’s plight comes handed down by the author on a silver platter, possibly by the intervention of aliens, or by the whims and capriciousness of fate or, (as in Greek times and sometimes literally today in some quarters) by the direct intervention of God himself.

So, no, if you have a book and it’s about a person who grows and changes through the course of the plot, it does help if it is the person who drives the plot forward, rather than having them completely at the mercy of surrounding events. But “at all times”…?

A book I’ve had the pleasure of reading, recently, is Alice Kuipers The Worst Thing She Ever Did. This is a story of a teenaged girl named Sophie, told in diary form as she deals with grief and post traumatic stress from a cataclysmic event which disrupted the lives of many and killed Sophie’s older sister. Clearly, what drove the plot of this story was something far beyond Sophie. The girl has no choice but to react to what has happened, and that forms the basis of this fascinating and (in my opinion) award-worthy story.

As individuals, we do not always drive our own plots. We are often at the mercy of forces beyond our control. But what makes our stories interesting is how we react; how we deal. Plot has been described as characters under pressure. I suspect that those reviewers complaining that certain books don’t have protagonists which drive the plot at all times, have failed to understand this. The question of what actually happened that fateful day in Sophie’s life provides a strong edge of mystery that propels the reader forward in The Worst Thing She Ever Did, but the main part of the plot is not what the cataclysm did, but how Sophie reacted to it, how she put it behind her, and how she changed herself.

R.J. Anderson says it best:

“But if the character reacts to a succession of difficulties by trying to make the best of them, or trying to escape them, they are taking action, even if it isn’t a big showy action. We aren’t all knights of Camelot setting out on quests, after all. Often we’re more like Hansel and Gretel, abandoned in the woods and trying to find our way home. And I think we need both kinds of stories — and both kinds of protagonists — to remind us of that.”

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I’d further point out that there are books out there where there are no major individual protagonists and where plot is expanded to an almost galactic scale describing vast sweeps of history. These aren’t exactly my bead, but they are สัตว์ใต้ท้องทะเลcited as important works of literature, so make of that what you will.

But the examples R.J. Anderson was citing were complaints that certain books’ plots turned on the basis of things happening to the main character, rather than the main character making things happen, and those complaints are misguided, in my opinion. You will find as much story and you will find as much plot in a character’s internal struggle to cope with what fate tosses his or her way. We may be at the mercy of the forces around us, but how we cope with that is good copy for any writer.

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