Plot versus People, a Humble Perspective

young star

My former brother-in-law who “unfriended” me on Facebook (and also in real life) a year or two ago because my emails were getting too angry, told me once of a famous author of Westerns who sent his characters out one day on horseback in terrible weather intending to have the gang do something amazing, but – and this is the interesting part – the characters didn’t like the weather so they rode their horses back to the ranch.

What does that tell you?

The relationship between some writers and their characters is, in my minuscule mind, analogous to the relationship between God and the beings of free will that he has created.  Don’t worry, this isn’t getting religious…

Imagine God feeling alone. We’ve all been there. Imagine he creates some “characters” to keep him company. He’s got a choice in this. He can either write an outline of a plot and place robot-like people into it, or he can do something entirely different. Something dangerous.

He can create real people.

Robots can’t keep you from being alone. So God wouldn’t go that route.

The difference between robots and people is simple. People have freedom to: 1. make up their own minds, 2. act on their decisions and 3. enjoy (or suffer) the consequences of their actions.

If you take away any of the three, you’ve created robots, not people. Think about it. Even number 3 is essential to creating real people.

An entity capable of  driving loneliness away from God must be able to enjoy or suffer the natural consequences of his decisions and actions, otherwise he’s just a robot that can’t provide company to a lonely soul.

You don’t see it? Yeah, of course not, I just repeated the same thing. Jeez, what’s wrong with me…

OK. There was a Twilight Zone episode where a broken gambler died and woke up in gambler’s heaven. Every bet he made was a winner. He was elated. Win after win. But when the newness wore off, he decided to make a dumb bet. He still won. So he made a downright stupid bet – still won. No matter what he did, he couldn’t lose. Suddenly, in horror, he realized he was in hell.

Without being able to enjoy or suffer the consequences of his decisions and actions, the decisions and actions were not real. He was no longer a person. Just a robot-like thing with the illusion of consciousness.

You’ll recall that James T. Kirk suffered a similar, but temporary fate in Star Trek Generations where his euphoria on the Nexus (robot heaven) turned to emptiness. No matter what he did, everything turned out just grand. He remembered what life had been like in the real world where his actions had consequences. At some level he must have realized he’d become a robot… as if he’d become a character in the hands of an over-controlling hack writer.

Now you see it.

To be real people, we need all three: 1. free decisions, 2. free actions 3. real, natural consequences.

So, as a writer, you might be able to learn something from the way God, in my current humble view of things, creates his characters.

I apologize to folk who believe that God directs most every move we make, changes outcomes, and causes every detail of everything that happens – at least the good stuff. You guys have a long history of being right about a great many things. I’m just a hack writer. Infallible, yes, but… Please just humor me, umkay?

My point is somewhere in this: I’ve got a plot outlined. It’s full of conflict. I sit down to write the plot and Johanna and the “evil” Queen meet. This happened yesterday, in fact. These two characters were “predestined”  to clash and fight to the death. But when they actually met?

They talked calmly and with respect for one another. The Queen asks Johanna to call her by her childhood nick name which nobody alive has ever heard. She explains ancient history as it truly happened. Johanna was coached by other characters to act meek, so as to avoid the Queen’s horrid temper, but my girl speaks her mind fearlessly as she’s always done.

As I’m writing, it’s as if these two characters are real and have free wills of their own.

For some reason, I never feel alone when I’m writing this novel.

But there seems to be a problem.

I can’t write a page-turner if there is no conflict. My goal is to have a zillion readers. Plus I want to say something meaningful to my grandkids who won’t read it unless they can’t possibly put it down.

But my characters refuse to fight. I keep putting them in situations where they ought to clash with the kidnappers, with the evil Queen, with the guy who tried to blow up Maxwell in his office….

But like me, they usually avoid conflict and tension. (Except in emails?)

What should I do?

If I were a creative writing professor, perhaps I would take a total hands-off approach and let the characters write a boring plotless story. If I were a control freak with a ton of self-control, I might follow my outline to the letter and ignore anything organic that happens on the fly with the characters.

But I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t take either approach. Neither should any writer who wants to unveil part of her soul to fifteen bazillion readers.

So I pivot between a predestined world of robots (my plot outline) and my respect for personhood – the characters’ freedom to decide, act, and experience the fate they’ve created; their ability to keep me company and give me this feeling of love that I have for some of them.

Personally, this is how I believe God interacts with people. Not all hands-on, not all hands-off.

As I write, it’s a balancing act. I want my characters to be as much like real people as I can make them, but I also want them to have interesting, novel lives.

After all, I’m writing a novel, not creating the Universe.

M. Talmage Moorehead

2 thoughts on “Plot versus People, a Humble Perspective

  1. Fascinating post, and I’ve experienced the same effect. I frequently start a scene and find it coming out differently than I expected. That’s often OK, but sometimes ends up as a major fork in the road, throwing my ongoing plot out the window. Sometimes what follows comes naturally, but in others gets me in a terrible twist until I can work out how the future needs to go now, until, of course…

    I’m also struck by your goal to be very successful author. I’m reading a first thriller by another author (it’s called The Bomb Makers) and it’s taking my breath away – every page is unstrained forward motion – very tight, very compelling, very believable. Then I think about my writing, and it’s much more mental than kinetic. More what you’d expect from a mystery than a thriller, but even then, it doesn’t hesitate to be atmospheric for it’s own sake when, purely from a plot perspective, it should be getting on with it.

    The contrast between The Bomb Makers and The Alexandria Project in marketability, I expect, is therefor rather stark. The other book is right in the groove of what’s supposed to sell and I expect and hope it will. But I’m not sure that this is the way I would enjoy writing. Perhaps I should give it a try and see what happens.

    But if that style doesn’t work for me, what then? Try and re-teach myself how to write? Continue to write the way I enjoy writing but switch to a more sympatico genre? Or just say the hell with it, since people have enjoyed my book even though it doesn’t fit neatly into a standardized slot?

    An interesting question. I like new challenges, but if writing in a more typical thriller/action mode doesn’t click, then I’d rather enjoy my writing rather than write merely for sales. Especially since the odds of building a big fan base are so long to begin with.

    • I want to write something that my great grandkids won’t be able to put down. That’s probably the only way I’ll ever get a chance to communicate with them.

      I love writing in every form I’ve ever attempted. I can’t imagine a type of writing I wouldn’t enjoying doing, as long as it didn’t involve lying or abusing anyone. I guess I can’t say I’d for sure like writing Romance novels, but I’ve never read one, so who knows? If I thought literary fiction would reach my grandkids and millions of average readers, and if I were deep enough into denial to think I had the talent, I’d enjoy trying to write that, too, I’m sure.

      But I’m fresh out of hell. Namely pathology. Once I settle down into a normal life of writing, I’ll probably understand exactly where you’re coming from and realize where I’m destined to write. Maybe somewhere between sf and ya and thriller. Who knows?

      I like Han Solo’s line, “Never tell me the odds.”

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