5/1/14 – WHO? WHAT? WHY? GUEST BLOGGER SHERRY AUDETTE MORROW ON CHARACTER, PLOT, AND WHAT COMPELS US TO TURN THE PAGE
On two occasions last December the UPS guy knocked on my front door with packages from Amazon. Each contained a book I had read about and was eager to read, but had not purchased — Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch and Julian Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending. A mini-plot emerged in the minutes it took to carry these boxes inside and slice the tape that sealed them: What was in the packages? Who had sent these books? Who even knew I had wanted to read them?
All was revealed on the enclosed gift cards. My sister, with whom I only speak several times a year and visit with less often than once a year, had sent them as holiday gifts. Somehow, despite the limits on our communication, despite the fact I had said nothing to her about these novels, she knew intuitively what to send. My character and hers were revealed not only by the gifts she’d sent, but also through the generosity evidenced by her effort to send me a surprise. We don’t usually exchange gifts.
I finished reading The Goldfinch at the beginning of March, and this week delved into The Sense of an Ending. While reading these novels, along with short fiction submissions for my magazine, Scribble, I found myself confronting again and again the question of which comes first, the character or the plot? Which is more important? What compels the reader to turn the page?
The Goldfinch opens with plot: Theo Decker is in trouble, both in his present and in the past that has brought him to the crisis that begins the novel. Through that plot — one that evokes some of our most basic fears, from being called before the principal to finding oneself alone in the world — Tartt chronicles Theo’s journey from frightened child to flawed, yet struggling adult. What happens, and Theo’s choices in response to those events, are what leave the reader with hope for a character who emerges as decidedly unsympathetic. It is through the plot points that the reader understands Theo even though he cannot condone Theo’s slide into questionable ethical territory.
The Sense of an Ending, on the other hand, opens with character — that of both memory and time, as well as of the schoolboys who serve as the focus of the story. The philosophy, the “seriousness” of character propels this narrative. Another journey of inexperience to experience, much like The Goldfinch in theme, Ending relies on the interior voice of the narrator, Tony Webster, to illuminate both character and a specific perspective on the human condition. Relationships are primary. What happens plays the supporting role.
In the midst of reading these two novels, I recently found myself rejecting a few technically well-written stories that had been submitted to Scribble. Sentences and paragraphs were well-constructed, spelling was correct, descriptions were vivid, and dialogue was sharp. Two involved characters on the brink of action, a third related what happened, i.e. plot, with no consideration of why the action sufficiently warranted attention. The authors failed to consider the crucial question of why we should spend time with these particular characters at this particular time under these particular circumstances.
I find I am more and more often taking issue with the distinctions drawn between character driven vs. plot driven — i.e. “literary” vs. “genre” or “commercial” — fiction. I find that whether plot supports character or character emerges from plot, what is more at stake, what determines whether a story resonates, is whether authors reach for the elements of both character and plot that reveal their unique perspectives, even while drawing on that which is familiar and at least somewhat universal. Those singular voices keep me reading. Those distinctive viewpoints, those elements that surprise and captivate, enchant or challenge, are as much a gift as those boxes, arrived unexpected, on my doorstep a few months ago.