Each time we sit down to write we have to ask ourselves a very simple yet (not-so-paradoxically) very complex question: What is this story about?
I subscribe to a few magazines about writing and writers, and I try to read as much about craft and construction as possible. A common debate in philosophy is the separation between Character-driven or Plot-driven writing. Given my training, education and personal preferences, I have always leaned toward Character-driven stories. That’s why, to me, the worst Jeffery Eugenides book will always be remarkably better than the best Dan Brown book.
Quick definiton: Plot-driven stories are about Events (Character are used to facilitate the events and environment). Character-driven stories are about Character (the evironment and events faciliate character growth)
But now, I’m thinking about changing my camp. However, I’m not changing my preference for Character-driven stories. I'm choosing Story-driven stories.
In a past issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, I read an intriguing article by David Jauss titled, “Home Sapiens vs. Homo Fictus: Or Why a Lot of Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing Too.” In the article, Jauss argues against iconic writing names like Janet Burroway, E.M. Forster, David Foster Wallace, etc. to say that writers should NOT know everything about their characters.
To paraphrase, Jauss argues that since in real life we cannot know everything about even our closest friends and family, knowing everything about our characters makes them less real. Moreover, getting caught up the minute details (like what curtains the character might have in their bedroom windows) can conflict with the essence the character creates. Jauss also contends that the character should be discovered as the story is written, not created as a list of characteristics before the story starts and then dictated and limited by those characteristics.
To a large extent, I agree with Jauss. However, I also feel that one might reverse the roles and insert the word ENVIRONMENT where he writes CHARACTER and still have a convincing argument. Just as I cannot allow my character to completely dictate her environment, I can also not allow the environment to dictate her. This is not to say that Character and Environment are separate entities or in any way mutually exclusive. But it is to say that sacrificing one for the other or habitually or philosophically relying on one more than the other is harmful to Story.
As a writer, you must ask yourself, “What is this story about?” If you want rock’em-sock’em cowboys shootin’ it out in the Old Wild West, then character might be the least of your concerns. Character A hates Character Z and they’ll punch it out in the saloon. I don’t need Character A’s deepest fears, I just want to know how hard he hits. If you want the emotional turmoil of a woman dealing with the loss of a child, character is your only concern. What she eats for lunch or her feelings about her boss just don’t come in to play.
It is naïve to think that we, as humans beings, are not affected by our surrounding environment. We are. But it’s equally naïve to believe that we do not also give something back and affect the environment around us. We do. And just as Jauss contends that too much emphasis on Character can make your characters weak, simple or unreal, too much of the opposite – an emphasis on events or environment – is just as bad. When writing a story, it’s not really about “how a character moves through her environment” or “the circumstances that surround the character,” but about the author’s creation of a symbiotic relationship between the two.
Take for example a story about a man who must leave his house, but outside a storm is raging. As the man thinks about leaving, the storm outside will make him consider an umbrella or raincoat. Any logical thinker would consider these things. Here, environment must dictate character actions. If I don’t want the character thinking about the umbrella, I can take away the rain… I am the author after all. However, I can also throw in character traits that affect the environment. Does the man even own an umbrella? Is he in a rush to leave? If I make the character feel rushed, then he’ll choose to run outside and get wet and suddenly he is affecting the plot. Maybe as the author I know the character doesn’t own an umbrella and therefore won’t ever leave his house – again it is the character's turn to affect the plot. To say, “The man does not think about getting wet” would be just as foolish as saying, “The man was crippled and panicked at the thought of his umbrella-less life.” It’s not up to either the man or the storm to dictate actions, but the relationship between the two.
Regardless of your philosophical leanings, don’t let either Plot or Character interfere with telling a good Story. Plot will and should affect character and character will and should affect plot. Giving too much credence to one or allowing one to dictate the other only limits what your world can look like, what your character can do, and what you will write as the author.