Plot and Character

8SquarePanelMarcus Gipps asked an interesting question on a panel at EightSquaredCon: do writers think of the plot first and then try to think of characters to go with it?

Since genres such as SF tend to be plot driven, I think there is a tendency for people to believe this to be the case, but it’s not the case.  Plot and character drive each other.

Even the simplest of plots have characters, clichéd though they might be. If the hero is attacking the dark lord, you have two characters there right away, a good guy and a bad guy.  You couldn’t have the plot without the characters: if the bad guy wasn’t bad, the good guy wouldn’t have a reason to attack.  If someone just attacks someone else, the reader will just think why? If you take away the characters from a story, all you’re left with is machinery. You are, in effect, describing how a steam engine or a canal lock works.  Both of these things are interesting,  but they’re not a story.

Of course, just having a good guy and a bad guy doesn’t mean that you can tick the box marked character and then get on describing the world or the spaceships or the fighting.  You may be writing a story but it won’t be a very interesting one, and this was what Marcus was really asking when he posed his question do writers think of the plot first and then try to think of characters to go with it? My answer?  The plot suggests the characters, the characters suggest the plot.  Listen to the characters, and they will tell you where the plot is going.  Follow the plot, and the characters will react accordingly.  If you don’t know what your characters will do, then you haven’t understood them properly, and neither will the reader.

EightSquaredCon was a great event, by the way.  Superbly organised, there was a great atmosphere throughout the hotel.   Well done to all involved!

protected void onCreate(Bundle icicle)

I heard a radio program a while back about found poetry. My favourite example was the message you see written out on the buttons you use to operate some train doors. Written from top to bottom it says:

Open Doors Close

The title of this entry comes from a basic Android program (the operating system that makes most of the world’s smartphones run). That phrase makes me think of some sort of Japanese Anime wizard character, who enters the protected void to create an icicle bundle to use against his enemy.

SQL commands are used for getting information from databases. An example would be
SELECT * FROM Customers WHERE Sex=’F’
which would find all your female customers. Seeing that always makes me want to write something like

SELECT integrity FROM life WHERE Hope IS NULL
Python programmers might write something like the following
class Music:
def __init__(self):

Which sounds like something someone trying to be cool ten years ago might say.*

One of my favourites is the LISP command to add together two numbers, for no other reason than I like the look of it.
(+ 2 2)
What I really like about all the above expressions, though, isn’t so much the poetical aspect, but rather the way these expressions inevitably arrive by applying the logic of the programming language in question.

But more on that another time…

* Any python programmers reading this – I know the def  __init__ should be indented.  Wordpress keeps stripping out my leading spaces. If you have a solution to this, I’d love to hear it.

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A while ago I bought a USB turntable to transfer my records from vinyl to MP3. I copied a few across, but gave up in the end when I decided I would be better served by paying for a subscription to Spotify.

When I tell this story to my male friends, their typical reaction is that “Ah! But most of the records I own aren’t available on Spotify.” I can’t help thinking that what they are implying is that they have wider and more discerning taste than me.  This may be true but there’s no need to rub it in.

Marian Keyes (don’t be misled by the chick-lit label, there’s a writer who really knows her craft) often makes jokes in her books about men and their record collections. I don’t know about men, but people do take pride in the breadth of their tastes. Ask someone what sort of books they like to read and they’ll usually reply something like “Mainly Detective Fiction, but I do like other things as well…” Well, yes, but nearly everyone would say the same. It’s rare to meet someone who only reads Detective Fiction, or Romances, or my own genre, SF.  So why mention the fact that you like other things, too?  Just say you like Ghost Stories and have done with it.

I don’t have a problem with being described as an SF writer, or an SF reader for that matter. There’s nothing wrong with being interested in a certain field. Eclecticism is great, but only up to a point. To take an example, every so often the BBC launches yet another radio program comes along which prides itself on its disparate play list. They never work. There needs to be some unifying theme or all you get is a lot of songs.

The human brain likes a just a little bit of order. Too much order and all you get is wallpaper patterns. Too little order and you all you have is randomness. The human brain is very good at picking up just the right amount of order when it looks at patterns. That’s how it can distinguish between a language and random collection of letters.  That’s why it likes music which is at once familiar but with the occasional twist or quirk.  The same goes for stories, by and large.

Of course, you will point out that there are many books and pieces of music out there which aren’t familiar at all, but people listen to and read them with great enjoyment.  This is true, but I would wonder at the path by which people arrived at these books…