Sunday, July 27, 2014

Does it take a Hero to make it a Plot?

Today, I came across this blog post on my Facebook feed. It is very well written, which is why I am sharing it here.

I think it's a somewhat fictionalized blog post in which the protagonist -- who may or may not be the author -- argues that most people do not have a coherent plot to their lives precisely because they are not heroes. Things happen to them randomly --  sometimes even very big things -- but they totally fail to rise to the occasion, decline to learn any lessons and continue to be more or less the same person they were at the start of the story.

If this were true, most people would be sitcom character, like Homer Simpson or Archie Bunker. To be totally untouched and unchanged by every experience would in itself be a heroic trait, I would think. One can be an anti-hero or a comic hero, but still remain a hero somehow, by dint of sheer intransigence.

That blog post -- My Cousin is not a Hero --  is well written or it would not have caught my eye. But is it true? And isn't there a plot hidden somewhere in this story about the non-hero cousin and his meaningless, but eventful life?

I am both a writer and an editor, and, yes, I have seen would-be novels that had plenty of events and no coherent plot. A plot does not consist merely of a series of chronologically ordered events, no matter how stirring. There has to be conflict build up, a climax and a denouement. But does the hero have to change? And if so, how much?

According to K.M. Weiland, there is such a thing as a flat character arc, in which the novel has a plot, but the protagonist does not change.

According to Weiland:

Next to the positive change arc, the flat character arc is the most popular storyline. Also called the “testing arc,” the flat arc is about a character who does not change. He already has the Truth figured out in the beginning of the story, and he uses that Truth to help him overcome various external tests.

But to have a plot, the character still has to overcome something, be tested and for there to be an outcome that has some sort of emotional as well as ideological meaning to the reader.

The problem with people who tell you that "real life" has no plot is not that they lead uneventful lives. And it is also not that they are impervious to change.  It's also not necessarily that they are not heroic. Some very heroic people fail to recognize the significance of their lives.  It's because they have no interesting vantage point from which to view the events that do happen in their lives. Most people do indeed change over a lifetime, both on the inside and on the outside. But they don't tend to shift their vantage point to learn what can be learned from their story. Or, alternatively, their vantage point shifts with the circumstances, so they cannot appreciate how very much they have changed. They have no perspective. They maintain no Olympian vision. Which is not to say that a third person observing them from a distance might not make a perfectly riveting story out of their lives.

Jean Laffite was indeed a hero. And he did write his own life's story. I enjoyed reading it. And it did provide a certain amount of perspective, before I could start my own version of that story. But for every person in real life that we can think of to write about, there are as many different perspectives from which to view them as there are authors. That's why a book about Jean Laffite by me is different from a book written about Jean Laffite by anybody else.

There is the story with its bare bones facts. There is the character of the protagonist who may or may not change during the story.  But there is also the framing process, in which the author decides on perspective. Without a frame of reference, there cannot be a plot.

A picture of a frame from the wikipedia

Most people's lives do have a plot. They are just standing too close to see it. And for every life story, what the plot actually is depends on where you are standing. Perspective matters just as much as character does. Even the lesson that we glean from the story of the non-heroic cousin is a moral colored by the viewpoint of the author.


  1. The problem with interpretation of a real person's life for the purpose of a plot is the author is not able to start with a tabula rasa to interpret that life: instead, the author brings his or her own experiences or knowledge into the interpretation, which makes that work unique in its aspect. As to heroes and anti-heroes, everyone is one or the other of their own particular life story, or plot. Even the lowliest person has an influence over others in some manner. A life always has consequence. No life is truly meaningless.

    1. Yes, I agree, Pam. No life is ever meaningless. All lives are part of the greater story which is the main plot of our universe. When writing about real people, it is not a tabula rasa. We have to respect the facts of the story. But perspective can certainly change the meaning of the events, simply by reframing. Sometimes two tellings can be equally valid, depending on which perspective has been chosen.

  2. Yes, for example, even a contemporaneous account about another can differ. Edward Livingston would certainly have given a different impression of Jean Laffite than, say, Daniel Patterson. Internal prejudices can cloud the perception.

    1. True. Although I wonder what Daniel Patterson really thought about Jean Laffite. I bet his private thoughts were somewhat different from the story he told to the public.