Which Comes First?

I’ve been looking at the poll results with interest, and reading your comments as well. First of all I’ll muse a bit on these and then I’ll relate my own take on the character/ plot/ setting triangle.

From this terribly unscientific and self-selecting survey, it seems that there’s a real split between characters and plot being the most important factor in a story. What I find really interesting is that nobody voted for setting. My slight surprise comes from the fact that, as an author, I have (so far!) written within two settings – Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. The success of Black Library and the many other tie-in titles that dominate portions of the SF/ fantasy market would suggest that setting is very important to many readers. The same could be said of Discworld, or Shannara or any other number of settings that have spawned countless books.

Setting the Tone

While the setting attracts the reader to the story, it is the basics of characters and/ or plot on which the story is judged. A poor story does not improve simply by being a Star Trek novel or a Warhammer 40,000 novella. I wonder also if readers, particularly of tie-in fiction, take the setting for granted. A setting adds backdrop to the characters and plot, and in many ways if it is well done it is hardly noticed at all. It adds resonance and flavour to these foreground elements without intruding upon them.

Here there is a significant difference between tie-in settings and those worlds created by a single author. In the first case, it is the setting with which the reader attributes certain values and expectations, regardless of who the writer might be. A Warhammer story should have a certain style and presentation that fits within the wider setting, for example. The setting determines a sort of baseline for the type of story one is going to read. In the case of the author-derived setting, the two are inextricably linked, so the association with the setting becomes an association with the author. In this case, the style of story is likely to transfer from the author to other settings created by him or her. Take, for example, David Gemmell. He wrote his novels in a variety of settings, both fantastical and semi-historical. Despite some distinct differences between these settings there is a definite ‘Gemmellness’ that readers can expect, whether it is part of the Drenai saga or takes place in ancient Macedonia.

Which brings me back to the idea that setting is the beginning of the journey for the reader. A setting informs the reader of the type of plot and characters they can expect. If a reader has already read stories within a particular setting, and enjoyed them, they are then pre-disposed towards reading more in that setting, having established that they like the tone and content of stories inherent in that setting (as much as they might like the style of a particular author as well). When a setting is shared, it is important that it has certain fundamental characteristics, a defined flavour, that can be made evident through the works of different writers. By understanding and keeping to these underlying tenets of the setting, the tie-in author can be sure that at least the first hurdle is crossed. If the principles of the setting are not understood or incorporated, then the converse is true and a fan of the setting is likely to feel alienated from their favoured world at the first step.

Plotting a Course

Plot came a very close second place in the poll, so close in fact that statistically it’s really a joint first place with character. Plot is fundamental to a story, it is what happens. More importantly, plot can be thought of why things happen. A piece without plot is simply a series of events with no causality.

What makes a good plot has been debated and analysed by many writers and critics, and there are plenty of essays to be found online and books to read and I have little to add to this wealth of information. That would make for a very short post, so instead I’ll return to the point about setting being overlooked, and have a look at the relation of plot and setting.

Some would say there are only so many plots in the world, and at the basic level they’ve all been used; a tale of redemption or condemnation, the Hero’s Journey, rags-to-riches and vice versa, all have been told a thousand times over and more. So what is it that keeps us coming back to the same old stories? The characters, some would say, judging by the poll results. However, quite often these tried-and-tested plots require tried-and-tested characters too. Plot is inextricably linked to character (as I will discuss in a while) and so though the names might change and the nuances are finessed, the same characters can be found doing the same things.

Setting then comes back into its own and may provide us with that defining difference that gives a story enough uniqueness that it is worth reading. Take the murder mystery. There are certain conventions required for the plot of a murder mystery, even if the main characters are as different as Poirot to Taggart to Grissom. In a sentence, the plot of a murder mystery is simple: someone gets killed and our detectives must find out (and prove) who did it and how. There can be all kinds of inventive ways for people to die and ways of them being found out, which is the second-guessing appeal for murder mystery fans.

Where setting can bring fresh air to the tried-and-trusted is to bring different constraints and opportunities to the plot. The murder could take place on the Orient Express, at a country manor, in the slums of Buenos Aires, in the back-alleys of Glasgow, on a moonbase or anywhere else. The setting also incorporates the tools by which the characters can detect and evade detection, whether that is the good old magnifying glass or digital DNA databases. Miss Marple never had a crime lab and requires a certain type of plot, while the stories of CSI: Miami and their ilk depend upon the (pseudo-)scientific apparatus at their disposal. The particulars of the murder could be exactly the same, but the story that progresses from that incident are very different and determined by the setting.

[I think that one of the charms of Bones is the blend of the traditional and the modern detective, with the main thrust of the plot coming from Dr Brennan’s big brain lab, but usually requiring the instinctive input and boot leather from Agent Booth to pull the threads together.]

Setting can also provide sub-plot, which for any fiction piece of reasonable length is essential. It might be a time factor – the plane will land and the suspects will go free. It could be environmental constraints – the murderer must be one of the cadets on the army base. From a certain viewpoint (mine!) it can even be said that minor characters are really part of the setting rather than the plot – police officers, other criminals, witnesses, red herring suspects are not really characters they are setting elements that can be used to influence the plot.

Character Flaw

Characters just about nudged out in front, but not by any significant margin. The setting draws us in, the plot keeps us reading, but it is the characters that engage us. The characters are agents of the plot, bringing it into action and relating its events to the reader. Characters are also the main contributors to sub-plot, the mechanism by which even the most straightforward story can maintain our interest.

Readers interact with a story because the characters interact with the setting and plot on their behalf. They have relationships with each other that are shared by the reader. The characters can be the difference between an intriguing plot and a compelling story. The plot of a story is an intellectual involvement – the desire to understand what has happened and why. The characters are the emotional involvement – they are the reason we care what happens and why.

The importance of characters in fiction has grown stronger and stronger over the last century and a half. Even outside fiction the ‘human interest’ angle on news stories is intended to create an emotional bond with the events portrayed. The tragedy and the comedy, the essential conflict, the themes of a story are brought to life through the characters, not the plot. We may enjoy a good twist in the story, for example, but it usually only matters if that twist has an impact on the characters. It may be that the twist throws new light on everything the characters have done or it could be that the twist is the catalyst for the conflict-resolution our characters need to achieve.

I would have voted for characters, for the record. For me, plot and setting are abstract things, while characters are visceral. The connection between the writer/ reader and the characters must be the driving force behind a story. When that connection is made, quite often it is almost irrelevant what the characters actually do, the reader simply enjoys spending the time with them (hence the popularity of soap operas and, to some extent, reality shows). The love, the bickering, the interplay of personalities are what make stories a reflection of real life. Good characters can be dependable or fickle, honest or untrustworthy, and can behave in irrational ways that do not service the plot but serve their own needs. When plot dominates too much, readers can sense that the characters are on tracks, moving towards some destination determined already by the author. When characters are the foremost concern of the writer, there is an intuitive understanding that what is happening is natural – the events of the plot unfold because of the actions of the characters and the nature of the setting, rather than because they were predetermined.

So What?

Character, plot and setting all work together to make a story a success. In a well-written story the reader should not be able to see the joins between these three elements. Plot should evolve out of character, the characters’ actions and personalities should be influenced by the setting, and the backdrop to the story should evoke the flavour of the piece and inform the plot.

As a writer, you will find that your style of storytelling will have a natural bias between these three elements, with character and plot vying for first place over setting. It is important to be aware of where your natural inclination lies, so when planning or writing a story you can assure yourself that you haven’t overlooked the other important elements.

Sometimes it is worthwhile writing outside of the comfort zone; plan and write a story that is plot-intensive if you usually go for character-heavy stories; or write a story where you pay more attention than normal to the setting; or compose a biographical piece about your characters which has them doing something with virtually no plot or setting at all, concentrating entirely on the interplay between them.

Real World Stuff

Thanks to those who came to the signings in London, and particular thanks to Liz and Mark from My Favourite Books, and Siân and John at Forbidden Planet. Sorry I didn’t meet you, Danie, and apologies to all involved for my train dramas making me late…

Currently Reading: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl.

Currently Watching: Not a lot at the moment, though new 24 has just started, and Lost and Battlestar Galactica are returning soon.

Just Watched: The Spirit. For some it’s utter trash, for others it’s genius. Over-the-top, stylised nonsense, and all the better for it. Witty, whimsical, old skool. I loved it. A real Marmite film amongst my friends. Get your brain into the right gear and it’s fantastic, if you don’t ‘get it’ (and I don’t mean that in an elitist way) then you’ll probably hate it.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good points all round Gav.

    Regarding the importance of setting… I think when it comes to picking an untried author off the shelf, the setting does have an influence on my decision to purchase. Some might argue that that’s just ‘the genre’ influencing me but I disagree.

    For example if I’m picking a fantasy novel up (by an unknown author) and the back of the book says it is a political intrigue set within an ailing Kings court I might not be overly enthused about it – it strikes me as a bit too confined to interest me. However if it says it’s a political intrigue set within the halls of a power-hungry Merchants Guild it could get my attention. Both could be very good books but my gut reaction is to go for the second one – it’s personal preference but it’s the setting that has influenced my decision.

    The characters are the most important factor for my enjoyment of the book but the fact is I wouldn’t have given the untried author a go unless I liked the sound of the setting his characters were in.

    When it comes to tried and tested authors then I already know their worlds, it’s the knowledge that they have characters I enjoy and care about that keeps me buying their stuff.

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  2. Hey Gav! I was wondering if you’d do a post on something a bit related to character and setting.

    I’m having some trouble handling groups of characters with some limited interaction. I wrote a post about it here… How do you handle characters that are important as a group, affect the plot, but aren’t always individually important? How do you transition from setting to character?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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  3. I think the poll probably does under-represent the extent to which setting is a factor in people’s reading choices; not least because readers themselves probably underestimate its effect.
    Most readers won’t see setting as a hugely important part of why they did or didn’t like a book, but I bet it’s a big factor in purchasing choices for many of them – surely that’s the case with Warhammer and 40K novels.
    In a similar vein, much genre fiction relies on the setting in ways that perhaps aren’t accounted for in the way people express their tastes –many popular ‘stories’ are really explorations of the setting (a character gallivanting off around the world, visiting some mystical lost city, searching for an ancient, forgotten race, etc), and many ‘characters’ in genre fiction are often representative archetypes of the setting, or exceptions to them which play upon the norms constructed specifically for that purpose (this is something that Games Workshop used to swing back-and-forth on in regards to the purpose of their special characters, as I’m sure Gav can explain in more detail than I).
    I suspect the truth is that setting isn’t a deal-breaker for anybody, so doesn’t figure particularly prominently in conscious choices, but it’s probably an underlying factor in most. The very fact that people to choose to read science fiction and fantasy at all is, in many cases, probably down to an underlying interest in the setting as much as the story or characters, but it’s not likely to show up as an active consideration in something like a poll or survey. There may or may not be sales figures, however, which support the idea that fantasy and science fiction books with a discernable and even a named ‘setting’ do better than those which use a largely undescribed or possibly real world (‘magic realism’) setting. It would be interesting to know.

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  4. […] the Introductions Eliza left a comment on my last post concerning introducing characters and groups into a story. She goes into some more details here, […]

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