Characters occupy plot

Last fall, when thousands of protesters descended on town squares and public spaces, was it the zeitgeist? Were we all zombies, drawn into this massive, not-well-publicized-enough plot? Or did each character individually have her own motives for participating?  Did the arc towards justice  articulate each of us within the plot of the year, or did we each sit down and say, hey, today is the day that I’m going to participate in an international movement for economic equality?  What’s more interesting–the fact that a big movement happened and is happening, or each individual’s motivations for participating in it, each person’s story, each soul’s hope for results?

A relative focus on character or plot leads not only to quite different fictional stories, but also vastly different reporting and non-fiction writing.  As I move my writing more in the direction of non-fiction, I realize that the concerns are not so very different.  Will a vicious new law outrage people in its very existence, or is it better to vocalize the law’s effects through a sympathetic person of interest in the case?  Which is more accurate, more moral?  When it comes to something like Occupy Wall Street, does a focus on the individual add to or detract from the overall plot?  What about something more sinister, like horrific shootings–better to parse the reasons for a violent society, or consider the motives and mental imbalances of the individual with the gun?

As a writer I emphasize plot.  After all, each character is just one of many affected characters, and appropriating another’s life feels exploitative, taking someone else’ story and using it to communicate my ends.  It’s also an appeal to pathos instead of logos, which is not my nature.  Worse, I do see a focus on character as upholding a more individualistic view of society as opposed to the collective, solidarity-building approaches towards which I work.

And yet…

Nobody ever made me cry more than Tess Durbeyfield.  And not so much because of the plot surrounding her, but because of her bravery, her fidelity, her perseverance in hopeless circumstances, all without having a conniving bone in her body. I remember characters; she has become part of me, in a way that Neal Stephenson’s gloriously plot-driven fellows have not.  Plot convinces, plot recollects experience and provides a new experience to the reader, but finely etched characters stick in the mind and the bones.

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