marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

character is plot

So said Henry James. Or, at greater length

What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is a picture or a novel that is not of character? What else do we seek in it and find in it? It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident, I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is an expression of character. If you say you don't see it (character in that–allons donc!) this is exactly what the artist who has reasons of his own for thinking he does see it undertakes to show you.

So I heft up my cudgels to quarrel with the master, since this is true only as far as it goes.

'cause it depends on where the character is. "A woman wants to be a doctor" will not have the same plot as "A woman wants to be a doctor in a different setting."

A poor girl in the modern world might, for instance, have to wrestle with terrible teaching, siblings and schoolmates who think she's showing them up by doing well in school (and might even beat her up for trying), a mother who thinks she's trying to leave her family behind, a father who thinks she should get a job right out of high school and start pitching in, instead of wanting to draw down even more money.

A girl in a fantasy world where medicine is the zealously guarded secret of the priests of the goddess Hygieia has other problems, particularly if she's rather secular-minded herself. Inveigling herself into places where she can spy, trying to mimic the pious so she can get trained -- discovering that, after all, malicious spirits of death and decay hate, hate, hate people who practice medicine because they save lives, and that she desperately needs the protection of the goddess Hygieia against them. . . .

So -- the rule is: Character in setting is plot.

And conversely, plot is character in setting. When I was young -- the age of my example characters -- I often sat down and wrote a story as "this happened, then that happened, then the other happened" until I got to the end. Then, since I knew everything they did, I knew what my characters were, and I went back to put in all their reasons for doing what they did.
Tags: character arc, characters, motives and purposes, plotting, setting (whole story)

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