Beware the Forces of Dehumanization in Storytelling, Part 1

Once upon a time, as I was innocently sitting at my desk, I noticed that I had absolutely nothing to write about.

What to do?

Well, I did what I always do: I fished around in what I call my “character drawer”, where I have some faceless, sexless, colorless, ageless dolls. And, at random, I picked one out.

Then I ascribed my doll traits. I made him a “him”, 6'1", and dark. I put a stubbly beard on him, and a Calvin Klein suit. I called him conservative, but edgy.

Then, since my poor character had nothing at all to do, of course I had to give him a plot. For that I looked inside my “plot” drawer, which is filled with a collection of clearly delineated maps.

When I found just the right map for my character, I proceeded to let him run through the map I had laid out for him.

Then, when my character had completed the entire length of the plot—and in the amount of space dictated by the publishing industry—I called what I ended up with a “story”.

Of course it’s true that I don’t REALLY have a drawer where I keep blank character dolls, or another filled with plot maps. Neither does any other writer I know. But you would never know that from the casual way stories are so definitively sliced, diced, and re-animated, according to these supposedly distinct, universally agreed-upon categories.

Of course it makes sense in a shorthand way to make these kinds of distinctions. A character is a person, and the plot is what happens to a person. It’s a simple and obvious differentiation—and what could possibly be wrong with that?

But, as in most aspects of storytelling, the reality is not that simple. Difficulties appear the minute you try to separate one from the other in any meaningful way. Is Mr. Character running through the plot for no reason? Can he even exist outside of the plot, or is his very character defined by things that have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen to him?

In fact, does it even make sense to think of character and plot as, in any way, distinct?

The answer, of course, is no. Plot and character, and most other deeply human considerations of the narrative arts, cannot be grasped at all in this strangely disconnected and dehumanized way—not in the minds of storytellers, or anywhere else, for that matter.

The fact is, storytelling is an intimate and personal process. And, because of this, stories are not so easily removed from the people who write them. They can begin with an image, a memory, an impression, some intimation of person, an idea—it could be almost anything. And the pieces come together as the story is being written in what is usually an unpredictable, almost alchemical, process of discovery.

So a story cannot be derived from, nor can it be improved by, an external checklist of so-called “essentials”. That is, unless your goal is to end up with something formulaic and bland. You recognize this kind of story immediately because the characters lack any spark of humanity, and your sympathy for them is minimal. These are wind-up-toy characters, meant to follow a regimented path to some unavoidable end. You are not too upset about it when these characters are blown up in movies. After all, nine times out of ten, you saw it coming.

So what is the glue that holds a story together? The answer, again, can only be the author. A good story, well told, is as deep as a human being, infinitely complex, yet surprisingly close. It is a reflection of the author’s humanity—her struggles, observations, delights and creative brio. I think also, like the experience of living itself, it’s expansive for the writer and reader alike.

Though we all may strive towards better, more complete expression, I think it is also important to remember that there can be no perfection in the arts. A close examination of even great writers yields long lists of flaws. Hemingway can be laconic to the point of glibness. Marquez’s plots weave and drift. Woolf has been called disconcertingly ethereal. Tolstoy rambles on about pet philosophies. In fact, no work is without its eccentricities or defects.

But, just like with the people we know and love, we would not want them scrubbed clean or sanitized. For then they might resemble some cold idea of perfection. But they would no longer be themselves.

I think it can be useful for writers to use the distinctions of plot, structure, character, etc. as a kind of shorthand, maybe as a way to re-examine what you’ve already written with fresh eyes, or a method to inspire innovation, or for any number of interesting reasons. But I think the importance of adhering to any sort of guideline with an eye to “improving” storytelling has become vastly overemphasized.

In the end, a book, warts and all, must be an extension of its author. Therefore we must reject any dehumanized “new and improved” version that comes at the expense of an artist’s vision.

For a book, rather like a person, can be true only to itself.

Click here to read part 2