Friday, June 25, 2010

Fiction: Character(s), Conflict, Setting, Plot and Point of View

People everywhere write stories, tell stories, and sing stories.  The products of the basic drive to create them have many forms.  One form is narration or fiction, and fiction has many forms: epic verse (oldest), novel (old), short story (new), and screenplay (newest).  Writing in such forms involves taking experiences, imaginary or real, and shaping them in such a way that the stories reveal the experiences to your audience through a series of events involving and affecting a character or characters.  In other words, a story exists in order to explore what will happen when a character or a particular group of characters confront internal and external issues.  Fictionists want to express their imaginatively real experiences, and a poet will use verse, a writer will use narrative, and a director will use scenes to do such.

Why write fiction?  Some writers think in terms of slides--a house, a relationship, an issue, a feeling--but fictionists think in terms of a sequence of slides--that is, a series of relative images that express their imaginatively real experiences.  Similar to poetry, fiction must contain precise diction, vivid images, and figurative language.  Similar to nonfiction, fiction explores someone's ideas or feelings about a subject.  Similar to drama, fiction presents characters in conflict, characters working through those conflicts.  However, fiction is different in many ways.  Its structure is a series of events, not sounds, rhythm and images.  Its characters and their actions are imaginary, not real people and events.  Its action occurs in readers' minds, not on stages. 


The most important component in any narrative is the people in it and their experiences.  The people whose story you tell are the characters.  Without characters there is no story.  Sometimes we do not notice the characters because they are naturally a part of a story, unless an author entices us to be attentive to them.  Memorable characters are a deliberate blend of many elements that authors arrange to produce a specific result.  A writer has to spend some time with a character to show his/her audience who that character is and what the character experiences, feels, decides--how and why--all in a way that makes his/her audience care for the character's progression.  That process of invention is difficult.

Physical details communicate large amounts of information about any character.  For example, a short, overweight man usually does not play a romantic role in a stereotypical story.  The physical details that writers choose for their characters communicate information, sometimes ironic information.  You will need to determine the reasons you want to include certain details, basing your determinations on the effects those details will produce in your audience's perception of the character.  The specific descriptions of a character's environment are also important.  Such details set the stage for the things that he/she will encounter, and they reveal what is important to him/her.  For example, if a character lives in a wooden shack on the edge of town, we have different information and feelings about her than if she lives in an extravagant mansion near Main Street.  The characters that surround the protagonist also convey information about him/her.  For example, the fact that the other characters in Peanuts call Charlie Brown "blockhead" reveals something about him.  They perceive him as a loser, a scapegoat.  Charlie Brown's actions also reveal things about him.  He pitches for his baseball team, and he directs his school's annual play.  He tries to be a leader, but he often fails.  The things Charlie Brown says and thinks ("Good grief" and his constant worrying) also communicate information about him.  Peanuts has been popular because Charles M. Schulz directly reveals his characters to us.  We are able to look at them, listen to them, and encounter them ourselves.  His descriptive details make us form opinions and feelings about his characters.

You will not be able to determine all the characteristics and actions of your characters in your first draft.  If you continue to write and explore, they will appear.  Remember, every detail you choose to include will contribute to the importance and meaning of the characters.  Such details will suggest themes and conflicts that will become increasingly important as the story continues, for you will advance the characters through the issues they will confront and resolve.  I suggest when you begin to write that you do not dwell too much on each detail, or you will never develop the story so that it accomplishes its purpose.  Furthermore, you may want to experiment with the details, changing ordinary details to unusual ones to develop the character(s) more fully.


Although characters are the focus of a story, if they exist in isolation, without decisions to make or issues to resolve, your audience will not continue to read your story, regardless of the details you included.  In other words, stories are not about the characters themselves; rather, they are about the characters and the conflicts they confront.  Without conflict, you have no story, and a story requires its character(s) to deal with and resolve conflict.  Your audience will want to experience the conflict, not simply to read about a character.  Conflict occurs when a character confronts a problem or tension that he/she must resolve, either to mature or to survive.  Sometimes writers build conflict into their characters, giving them inherent and explicit weaknesses.  Sometimes authors use the conflicts they have experienced as places from which to start.  Remember, the experiences and issues you choose for your characters must differ from your experiences and issues because fiction is imaginary.  You will need to create an imaginary world in which characters experience and feel things that are separate from yet relative to your audience's experiences and feelings.


For your audience to relate to the story, you must identify those details that establish the place, the time, and the mood.  That does not mean you need numerous descriptors; some of the best stories offer little detail to indicate setting.  However, those authors chose specific details to create an appropriate setting, giving the story a place--geographical, symbolical and/or emotional--from which to start.  Such details advance the characters and the conflicts in their stories.  Your story will operate and unfold in a particular setting, a setting that offers your audience details about context so that the story's actions become more concrete.  A specific setting also will create boundaries in which you will need to work.  In other words, your choice of details will guide the story and the reader.


The next element of narration, that which holds the story together, is plot.  Plot is the series of events that move the story from its beginning through its climax (turning point) and to a resolution of its conflict(s).  Plot is also the reason the story occurs, the reason it moves from beginning to end, the reason the protagonist learns or becomes something or chooses something.  Thus, plot involves story line (the things that happen) and causality (the reasons those things occur).

The central character with whom we identify or on whom we focus is the protagonist.  The characters, things or forces that align themselves against the protagonist are antagonists.  Remember, conflicts may be internal (decisions, emotions) or external (people, places).  The protagonist does not need to be perfect; in fact, in most stories protagonists are imperfect.  They have serious psychological issues or physical flaws that complicate matters.  We want complicated matters because that is the reason a story interests us.  David, a complex character in the Bible, possesses a deep devotion to God and a brilliant mind, but he also has a strong desire for power and an imperfect sense of personal responsibility.  Whatever your protagonist's struggles are, you must write your story so that you and your audience can identify the protagonist.  In stories with more than one protagonist, you will be responsible for the development of story lines and conflicts and resolutions for each protagonist.  The events may overlap, making your story more complex.

The point or points at which the protagonist decides how to resolve the story's conflict(s) or confronts the conflict(s) is the climax.  The climax is the turning point of the story because it is where the story moves from building conflict to resolving conflict.  The climax is not necessarily the most excitative or violent moment in the story, although it can be.  Everything that leads up to the climax is rising action, and everything that follows the climax is falling action.  Notice: your story will be about the climax.  Everything you decide to include in the story, all the events and details, will be relative to that moment (the climax).  Resolution or denouement is the part where you summarize the conflicts or bring them to their conclusion.  That does not mean all ends well; it may mean all ends terribly.  Whatever the conclusion, it must be believable--that is, understandable.  There must be cause and effect, in other words.

Many elements can propel a story toward its climax and resolution.  First, conflicts within and outside the protagonist move the story forward.  The story recounts the protagonist's movement through the conflicts toward the resolution.  Second, any details you introduce will move the story toward its climax and resolution, though some details--physical and background, for examples--will do such indirectly.  Third, some authors foreshadow events, creating tension.  Fourth, other characters may move a story forward.  Such characters may be flat (simple) or round (complex), and they often make a scene more complex in a way that advances the action and makes the scene more realistic.  Your story, however, must not be full of stock characters, characters whose personalities and roles are obvious and predictable--the kind, old lady and the nerdy teacher, for examples.  Finally, the story may not move chronologically from one event to another--in media res, flashback, and stream of consciousness are examples of such.

If you do not carefully construct your story, your audience will become lost.  However, if your plot is orderly and coherent and your story presents conflicts and resolves them, your work will have dramatic unity.  That does not mean your story will be predictable; rather, it means your work will be literary.

Point of View

A voice narrates every story.  That voice and the way the author uses it to tell the story is the story's point of view.  You need to think about who will tell your story and how you want him/her to tell it.  You will want to adopt a point of view to relate the story in a way that your audience experiences your protagonist's experiences.

First person involves changing your own voice as a storyteller and injecting I or we into every scene that your narrative contains.  In this mode you will write as though you are one of the characters in your story.  First person is the point of view in which the narrator is one of the characters in the story, telling the story as that character.  Such point of view is limited because you will include only those details your character possibly can know.  First person, both despite and because of its limitation, is powerful because you will thrust your audience's imagination into the mind and body of the character who is telling the story.  How will your audience react if your narrator is wrong?  If you create a character whom your audience cannot trust, then that character is an unreliable narrator.  Authors use that device to involve their readers further in the story, for the readers have to determine the narrator and the circumstances.  The unreliability must be consistent--that is, you somehow must explain what is occurring so that your audience understands the conflicts, not only as the narrator relates them, but as they are beyond their appearances.  For example, you may want to tell your story from different first-person viewpoints.

Third-person limited point of view is more open to insertions and observations from the narrator or voice who tells the story.  Many narratives are from this point of view.  You must confine the perspective of the action in your story to one character, choosing to listen to one character's thoughts and to see things from his/her vantage.  The narrator's voice is not that character's voice, as it is in first person.  Instead, you may use any voice, any style of language or structure.  If you use this point of view, you will be able to focus on one character's thoughts, experiences and actions, using a voice and style that may not be yours.

When an observer simply notes what he/she sees and hears, without intrusion or interpretation, then the story is from an objective point of view.  The observer does not participate in the action; rather, he/she watches and listens, relating how the characters look and what they do and say.  Similar to first person and third-person limited, the objective point of view is restrictive, but it has the advantage of directness.  The audience has to interpret the actions and words of the characters directly, for there is no commentary.  Any information that the narrator provides will alter how your audience perceives any scene.  An excellent example of this point of view is "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway.  Similar to a video camera, the narrator simply provides the audience with facts.  Remember: if you use the objective point of view, your narrator cannot reveal to the audience any of the characters' thoughts, cannot overtly explain the action, and cannot editorialize in an attempt to ensure comprehension.

If the narrator of a story has and uses his/her access to any information--past, present or future--relative to any character in the story, then the story is from an omniscient point of view.  This point of view is popular to use because it is fun to be all-knowing, to tell a story by hopping from character to character, incident to incident, scene to scene.  If you want to tell a story about a group of people, you naturally will want to relate details and experiences of importance to all the characters.  You will want to move the story's focus from one character to another, one scene to another, one time period to another.

Remember that the major pitfall for writers with respect to point of view is inconsistency.  You must be vigilant about inconsistencies in point of view in any work, especially in longer works.  As you move from character to character, you may lose track of who your protagonist is and what the central issues are.  Be careful.