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Friday, August 19, 2005

Story As Process of Events, Vs. Story As Character Development

There are two basic ways you can depict history - real history, that is - and they also apply to writing fiction:

A) History as a process of events.
Why bother with individuals? Let's just look at "the system" - all peoples, all institutions, the world as a whole - and watch them interact. In the greater scheme of things, what the individual thinks, feels, says and decides matters not.

The forces of history are supreme. We're just going with the flow of things. If Hitler hadn't been, somebody just as vile would have been there instead, doing roughly the same things. It was that time of the century.

Apply this principle to a novel, and you get a very grand panorama of nations, factions, groups and nature's forces (the Sun, the Earth, the cosmos, the echosphere), clashing mightily over time. It can be awe-inspiring, if done right, but may also come across as cold and impersonal (which it probably is).

And if you're not up to the task, the story is guaranteed to turn out utter crap. There's a thin line indeed between the sublime and the pompous.

B) History as Character Development.
Why bother with the big events? Focus on the individual - how she grows up, how she is shaped by genes and environment, and what becomes of her.
By understanding one person, we will understand the whole of The Human Condition.

Many novels are written with this approach, and you have to be a real schmuck to fail at it. Because this is how every single human being perceives history: as "The Story of My Life" - the early years, the adolescence, maturity, and old age. This story is intensely personal, and universal.

But it has severe limitations. Does everything have to be about YOU? Galaxies collide, stars are born - what's that got to do with YOUR ingrown toenail? (Or with my receding hairline?) Absolutely nothing!

So it's perfectly valid to write a story where characters don't get into play at all. (A classic example would be Olaf Stapledon's STAR MAKER. )

But... who will read it? And you can bet your ass the critics will despise it. The cultural paradigm is still "We are all individuals!" (-Monty Python's Life of Brian)

Try to seriously express the notion that human individuals are not (and cannot be) in control of their own lives, and you will be shunned... also by people who claim they are the instruments of Fate/God/History, but really are just narcissists with a God complex.

OK, enough with the philosophy. What I'm getting at here is that is dead simple.

Your chosen point-of-view in fiction-writing -- impersonal/distanced, or personal/intimate -- will, whether you mean it or not, reflect a certain view of the world. Do you wish to depict "how things work?" Are you focusing on "how does this person work?" Can you fuse both perspectives? You can, but you don't have to.

The choice is yours (assuming there is a choice, he-he!)...

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