Sunday, January 27, 2013

Character, Theme, or Plot?

The question was, 'Which is of greater importance: Character, Theme, or Plot? What do you think?'

While I cannot consider Aristotle on plot and character, nor whether 'Waiting for Godot' calls these aspects of written art, drama, novels, into question, I can speak from personal experience.

Plot is the design of a life. However that might be construed. Character is the individual thrust, how the person handles what's thrown at them.

Ok. So plot is narrative. Suspense. What grabs and holds. Character creates plot, I guess. Even in Aristotelian terms. Hubris. Or, oppositely, the magic miracle.

And really, plot, narrative, is what 'sells.' It keeps us hooked on the unfolding of events that may or may not be caused by the characters of the central characters.

In 'Waiting for Godot,' Beckett creates a situation in which the characters await a central narrative, a dominant metaphor, a Godot, who never appears, and yet, like them, we wait, we wait to see if the meaning of it all will manifest and therefore we are thrust into a narrative that holds us in suspense.

What can leave narrative? Plot? The structure of a story that unfolds through action? Setting, elements, crisis, resolution, and so on. I would say poetry.

The writer or director of poetry abandons plot, and yet never fully abandons character. The narrator exists; the narrator through whom the poem is told.

I think of Tarkovsky, whose Stalker I put on last night, and which was criticized as an 'art movie' with no real plot, nothing to grip and hold the viewer.

Yet Stalker is all character, and the movement of the plot is driven by character, the needs, knowledge and desires of character.

Character, plot, theme. It is an unanswerable question. It depends on your preferences.

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Narrative is certainly part of what constitutes the plot. It's the story, isn't it. And the story is the action, its trajectory through the time it takes to read the book or watch the film. The plot can be plotted, in fact.

But I am speaking of poetry, which often can and has to break free of the normative constraints of an interwoven net of plot, character, theme. Poetry surely is where narrative can break free of plot? Isn't 'Waiting for Godot' more of a work of poetry in this regard?

A poet works with themes and images, and the narratorial voice can be anywhere, there are no rules.

To be sure, there are so-called narrative poets, even last night I was reading Maxine Kumin's 'Where I Live,' a book of poems, and to my mind she is a narratorial poet, a commenter on culture and so on, and while the farm life she describes is presented beautifully and poignantly in her poetry, I wasn't attracted to her stories because the language isn't that interesting, she doesn't call her own judgments and image-making capacities into question, and she remains solidly in the 'controlling metaphor' tradition for structural coherence.

I couldn't finish the book, and will likely pass it on at a used bookstore. Then I opened Laura Kasischke's 'Space, in Chains,' and was immediately fascinated, intrigued, and found my perceptions opened in the inner poetic landscape of the writer, a distantly surreal flux of images that remain contextual, an inner story of a life.

Making me think that while narrative is naturally inclined to plot, though it can be wrestled from it, fragmented or hidden or obscured, context is really the poet's domain.

In some ways, I truly think context is everything.

Context is how we arrive at understanding subjective truth, our positioning in any viewpoint. Context is neither character, nor plot, nor theme (or meaning). When we say there is no objective truth it is because we understand we are always 'in context of.' And I think context is central to creating coherence in poetry, but is not necessarily quite so important in the prose traditions (like fables, short stories, novels, plays, popular films, etc).

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