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The Holy Trinity: Character, Plot, and Setting

There are probably as many different answers for what elements make up a good story as there are writers and readers, but I think most of these can be boiled down into what I think of as the “holy trinity” of a story: character, plot, and setting. A story, to me at least, is different from storytelling. Storytelling is the way a story is told, and having a good story is only one part of good storytelling. The language, images, pacing, clarity, and balance also matter a great deal, but in this post I want to focus on the elements of a good story, separated from the art of storytelling as much as possible.

The Holy Trinity are all interconnected and reinforce each other, but they do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. A good story has strong characters, a well-developed plot, and a well-thought out setting, but many writers specialize in one, or two, of these areas. Some authors, particularly in the realm of science fiction, do very well with one or two of these elements, and are noticeably lackluster with regards to the other. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, for example, have brilliant plots and settings, but their characters are extremely forgettable. Going further with this example, I would say Asimov specializes in setting, and Clarke in plot, and that their proficiency in these areas helps make up for their deficiency in character.

That being said, it is important define exactly what I mean by characters, setting, and plot. Characters are the agents in the story, who the reader can identify with and who give the story a soul. Good characters are consistent, well-thought out, and understandable. They need to feel human, even if they are not. If they’re not human, then even though the alien/inhuman characters are characters, they do not contribute to the character element of a story; instead, they contribute to its setting, as they function as part of the larger world instead of as characters.

So characters give a story soul.

What, then, does plot give a story? Plot gives a story mind. While characters breathe life into a story, it is the plot that gives it intelligence. A plot does not have to be complex to be good; indeed, overly complex plots are the downfall of many stories (I’m looking at you, Moffat’s Doctor Who). An intelligent plot, like a character, should also be identifiable, and it should allow the reader to think about what is going on. It should be understandable, but also thought-provoking; the plot should present situations that the reader could envision themselves in, and can think of their own solutions to. If your characters are well-done, then hopefully their reactions to the plot won’t be the same as the readers, which can lead to tension.

If characters give a story a soul, and plot a mind, then the setting gives the character a body. The setting contains both the characters and the plot, and yet is also separate from them. It is the medium on which the other two exist, and it is what gives the characters context and the plot meaning. The setting is what fleshes out the story, and gives it a feeling of reality – or alternate reality. The setting consists of all of the background, the places, the social structure, the laws of physics; the setting is what allows you to feel as if you are no longer a reader, but an inhabitant of this other place.

But which of these elements is the most important to a story, I hear someone ask (or is that the voice in the back of my head)? All three are important, and what is the most important depends entirely on the reader or writer’s opinion. I recently watched a show (the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica), and was somewhat underwhelmed by it, much to the shock of the show’s fans who had recommended it to me. A discussion on the relative merits and demerits on the show led me to realize my opinion of the show was so different because I watched the show differently. I watched the show differently because, to me, setting is paramount, plot second, and characters last. The fans in question, however, viewed characters as paramount, and on further reflection the character development was very good, but because characters don’t matter as much to me as setting or plot (which was not nearly as well-thought-out or consistent as the characters), the show fell a little flat for me. So, in the end, it is up to the reader or writer to decide what is most important, though keeping all three in mind is always good.

For me personally, though, because I view setting a defining both the plot and characters, I see it as the most important. For me, setting can make or break a show. Plot, to me, is almost as important because it usually makes me think more than the other elements, and that thinking is why I like to read (and write). Characters are the least important to me, and I am more than happy to tolerate bad characters if the setting and plot are phenomenal. Of course, this is personal, and I don’t claim that any of the trinity are intrinsically better than the others; I just value them differently.

As I said before, all of the three are interconnected, and when done well reinforce each other. Minor characters, while part of the characters, are also often part of the story’s background and thus contribute to its setting. Major characters drive the plot forward. Mysteries and secrets woven into the setting can allow a plot come into being, and events in the setting’s past can motivate a character to do whatever it is she wants.

Sometimes, one element of the story can trump the others, and yet still bring the others to high heights. One way of creating a plot is to choose a setting and put the characters into it and see what happens. A writer could develop a plot, match it to a setting, and then fill it in with the appropriate characters. One could also develop a character and create a plot around his life. Another way – my way – is to create a world with some fundamental aspect that is either unknown or that changes, and then build a plot around that element, and create characters to fill the necessary roles in the plot. One could also come up with a neat idea for a plot, fill it with characters, and then decide where the plot would best fit in.

I believe most writers start with one element, and then match the other two to it. All writing starts with an idea, and the nature of this idea is what defines the beginning element, the story’s seed, and often its strongest aspect. An idea along the lines of “what if the world looked like this?” is often a setting seed. One that sounds like “what if this happened?” is often a plot seed, and an idea like “what would someone like this do?” is a character seed. All three beginnings are equally valid, and yield great results.

And so I think that all stories begin with an idea seed, and that thus all stories contain an idea at their heart. This idea is what makes a story interesting, and is what makes it resonate (or not) with the reader. For me, the interesting ideas lie in setting (doubtless an influence of my historical and sociological training), while others may find plot or character ideas more interesting. It’s all up to the reader.

In the end, the point of this long-winded ramble is that I think all stories begin with a seed based around a setting, a plot, or a character, and that the other elements grow from there to form a full story. While no part is greater than the other, different readers and writers value them differently. And I shall leave you with that, and welcome any comments.

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Writing

 

Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge is one of my favorite authors; his Zones of Thought books are brilliant (especially his depiction of the Tines and the spiders of the world circling the OnOff star, both in terms of individuals and societies) and his Realtime/Bobble series is some of the best science fiction ever written. Thus, it was with high expectations that I turned to his 2006 novel Rainbows End, set in an alternate version of his short story “Fast Times at Fairmont High.” The short story and the novel have many similarities, including the same characters (Juan Orozco and the Gu family, though the names of the father and mother changed in the novel) and a similar fascination with what reality really is and the social effects of an internet carried to its extreme. While the short story is interesting, it really pales in comparison to the novel, which expands upon everything “Fast Times at Fairmont High” had to offer.

Rainbows End centers around the Gu family; in particular, world-renowned poet Robert Gu, who after having barely survived Alzheimer’s, is now learning how to live in a world where the real and the virtual are blended together. Almost everyone uses special clothes and contacts to be constantly wired into a global internet made possibly by a series of localizing nodes, and they can overlay various realities over what really exists. Essentially, everyone’s reality can be tailored to their own preferences, and people can work together to create larger “belief circles,” which are large virtual realities often based around works of fiction.

This whole idea of everyone having their own reality was the most fascinating part of Rainbows End, but alas it was not fully explored. Instead, Vinge set this as merely a backdrop for a more personal story about an old man trying to find his place in the world, a young woman trying to keep her grandfather out of trouble, a young boy trying to pass his classes, a conspirator trying to make the world a better place by less-than-savory means, and a rabbit intelligence whose power is only hinted at. This plot is well-done for the most part, though a bit complex and at times confusing, but to served to distract from a more thorough examination of a society firmly embedded in multiple clashing virtual realities. These clashes are hinted at, but never realized, as the book gets a little bit lost in its personal stories and plot. I think, in the end, it suffered from trying to do much.

Still, the book was very well-written, very engaging, and while a bit confusing, really made me think. I wish some aspects of it had been explored more thoroughly, and I hope that his probably sequel will do exactly that. It didn’t live up to my expectations, but it is still well worth a read.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Readings

 

The End of Eternity

Ending my recent spate of Asimov reading comes one of his earlier works, 1955’s The End of Eternity. This book was published shortly after the stories that made up the Foundation trilogy. Indeed, I think the same ideas driving Foundation were still very much in Asimov’s mind as he wrote this book, as it also deals with the social sciences – in this case, just called sociology and psychology and not psychohistory – influencing human development. Unlike Foundation‘s psychohistory, though, the sociology and psychology Asimov discusses in this work can predict individual behavior.

The premise of the End of Eternity is simple and very interesting: there exists a dimension outside of space and time called “Eternity” alongside our universe, and humans are taken from the real universe to live in this universe, where they work to help mankind by changing events across all of history to cause the least possible harm. In essence, it deals with time-travel and social engineering on both large and small scales. The main character – who, like most Asimov characters, is rather forgettable – is an Eternal who falls in love with a timebound woman, and risks the existence of all Eternity to be with her. While this romance is painful at times, it serves as a useful plot device to explore all of the problems inherent in a group of outsiders guiding human history to cause the least possible harm. Ultimately, the novel revolves around two questions: why the Eternals can’t access a series of centuries in the far future, after which mankind is extinct, and why there is no significant space travel (and no Foundation-esque Galactic Empire). Both questions turn out to be intimately related, and Asimov’s exploration of them really make this book stand out as well worth-reading. I highly recommend it, and for the sake of not spoiling anything, I will stop here.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2014 in Readings

 

Structure, Agency, and Foundation

I think Isaac Asimov secretly wished he had been a social scientist. Though he was a respected biochemist, his works, particularly the Foundation trilogy, privilege social scientists. At one point, Asimov even notes that the physical sciences are more lauded because their results are immediately beneficial, yet ultimately superficial, while the work of the social sciences have little immediate benefit, but in the long run yield far greater results. Asimov’s fascination with the social sciences led him to fuse his physical science training with his idea of social science (particularly sociology), to create the fictional science of psychohistory: the reduction of the collective actions of vast numbers of people into equations, enabling a skilled practitioner to predict future human behavior using advanced statistical techniques. This science is the basis of Asimov’s lauded Foundation trilogy, and to some extent the prequels and sequels (the series was awarded the “best all-time series” Hugo in 1966). This post is only concerned with the first five Foundation books, and excludes the prequels. Thus, I will only discuss FoundationFoundation and EmpireSecond FoundationFoundation’s Edge, and Foundation and Earth.

The premise of the Foundation series is simple enough: in a future so distant that mankind has colonized the entire galaxy and Earth is a mere myth, psychohistorian Hari Seldon perfects the art of psychohistory on the Galactic Imperial capital Trantor. During the process, he discovers that the Galactic Empire is in decline, and predicts that 30,000 years of barbarism will follow its collapse. However, his psychohistory allows him to see a way to reduce this period to a mere millennium by establishing two “foundations” at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve human knowledge and provide the seeds for a new Galactic Empire even greater than before. The original trilogy deals with the people of the First Foundation, a great collection of physical scientists, who follow the “Seldon Plan” and work towards a new Galactic Empire.

Over the course of these first three books (the later two I will discuss later), Asimov comes in on a very old argument within sociology: which is more important in thinking about human society, social structures or human agency? Psychohistory, the physical science of society, is the pinnacle of the structuralist argument, though it leaves room for agency. Seldon uses psychohistory to predict history for the next thousand years, and grounds his predictions on two assumptions (plus an unspoken third assumption key to Foundation and Earth): that people to not consciously know of psychohistorical predictions, and that there are sufficiently large numbers of people to make the predictions from. In Seldon’s model, the individual cannot change history, and social forces will always triumph. However, psychohistory cannot predict the actions of individuals, who can more or less rule their own life. It is only large-scale, macrosocial events that are subject to psychohistorical principles.

Of course, the series would be relatively boring if everything went according to Hari Seldon’s plan. In the second book, an individual gains the power to change history, thus representing the triumph of agency over structure, and destroying the Seldon plan. This triumph was only made possible by a “mutation” that, in a way, made this individual no longer human by giving him the power to influence the minds of others, and thus fell outside of Seldon’s psychohistory. Thus, for the first time, the individual was not a pawn of social forces. As such, in the original trilogy, the struggle between structure, as represented by the Seldon Plan, and agency, as represented by those resisting the Seldon plan (successfully only in the case of the mutant).

In the end, Asimov explores the structuralist argument more, and when agency does come up, it is treated as an aberration that can (and maybe even should) be corrected. As such, I think Asimov tends to side with the structuralist argument more than the agency argument. That said, I’m not sure his idea of structure is completely devoid of agency. During periods of “crisis” in the Seldon Plan (which are part of the plan and only apparent crises to the First Foundation’s existence, which are resolved by the social forces already set in motion), the First Foundation is supposed to do very little and let social inertia solve the crisis for them, thus rendering individual action useless. Yet, despite his characters saying this, individual agency seems to matter; the first great Mayor Salvor Hardin and the great Merchant Hober Mallow both use what seems to be agency to solve their crises. Granted, they both make use of existing social forces, but especially in the case of Salvor Hardin and the Anacreon crisis, it seemed to be Hardin’s ingenuity and clever use of these social forces that won the day, rather than the social forces themselves. Sure, maybe if Hardin hadn’t done it someone else would have, but I am not so sure. The structure/agency question is a complex one and still the topic of much debate, and Asimov does portray this complexity well in the trilogy.

Despite the great ideas and beautiful Galaxy-building Asimov does, the Foundation trilogy does have some problems, and I think is vastly overrated. Asimov’s writing is not terribly good, and at times his grammar, phrasing, and pacing made me wince. Furthermore, his characters are utterly forgettable, and are largely the same few cardboard cutouts rehashed again and again. He also only includes two named women, Bayta and Arkadia Darrell (other women are present, but only as unnamed male attachments). However, despite these deficiencies, the original Foundation trilogy is a brilliant series that covers hundreds of years of human history, and are well worth a read.

The sequels to the trilogy, however, are an entirely different story. While the first three Foundation books more or less read like a collection of linked short stories and novellas and take place over the course of centuries, the second two feature the same cast and take place over the course of about a year. This gives Asimov more opportunity to develop characters (and, since these were written about twenty years later, his writing also improved – but not all that much), and he does. However, the characters are still a bit unconvincing and feel like cutouts, partly because they are written somewhat inconsistently (especially Trevize).

Now, I have no problems with this, but this gives the latter two books a vastly different feel. However, I strongly feel that Asimov should have left Foundation at the original trilogy and let it stand there. However, under pressure from readers and editors for a sequel, Asimov committed a cardinal sin: he tried to combine the Foundation trilogy with his other works – most notably his Empire and Robots series – into a single universe, and thus twisted the underlying plot of the latter two books almost beyond recognition, in the process destroying everything that made the original trilogy as good as they were. He destroys and dismisses psychohistory, renders meaningless all of the events of the original trilogy, and introduces several deus ex machinas and inexplicable plot phenomena to move the story along. While these two books would have made fine standalone books (with a little editing), the fact that he tied them to Foundation ruined a lot of the work he had already done, and thus I prefer to think of them as not really counting (these two sequels have also turned me off of the prequels he, and others, wrote).

So in the end, I highly recommend the original Foundation trilogy, despite its flaws. I cannot in good conscience recommend the other books in the series, but perhaps familiarity with the Empire and Robot sagas would help a reader there. If you haven’t read Foundation yet, do it, and think about Asimov’s application of structure and agency, which I feel to be at the heart of what makes Foundation so (relatively) timeless and so fascinating.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2014 in Readings

 

Megamind and Women

I recently had the pleasure of watching Megamind – I know I’m behind the times, but it didn’t appeal to me when it first came out. I was very glad I decided to watch it, though, as it was extremely funny, quirky, and while often cliched and predictable, it still managed to be clever. The main characters were well done and I sympathized with or understood all of them – all of them, that is, except the sole named female character, Roxanne. In a movie that was all about subverting cliches, the one cliche they didn’t subvert was that of the damsel in distress. In and of itself, that’s fine, but then Roxanne never rose beyond the role of damsel in distress. She was introduced as clever and confident, but these traits mostly vanished as we got to know her better and she got used by pretty much everyone. She had so much potential and was so well-positioned to actually affect the plot, but she never did; she always went to Megamind or his alter-ego for help. She did almost nothing on her own, though she was clearly capable of doing so!

Other than her, the world they inhabit seemed to be entirely made of men, except for a few women who pop up in the large crowd scenes. As such, it’s a crime that they didn’t take advantage of the one female character they included, and then even more of a crime when the damsel in distress trope was pretty much the only one to survive unscathed. It was extremely frustrating to watch her miss out on all of these opportunities to do something, when it was perfectly in character, and soured an otherwise phenomenal movie.

Sorry for the little rant, but that aspect of Megamind really bugged me. Still, though, if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2014 in Watchings

 

The Gods Themselves

Of all of the hundreds of novels he wrote, 1972’s The Gods Themselves was Isaac Asimov’s favorite. Having picked it up after reading the first three Foundation novels (a review of that whole series will be coming once I finish all of the one’s he himself wrote), I can understand why it is. The book is divided into three parts, aptly entitled “Against Stupidity…” “…the gods themselves…” “…contend in vain.” The line, as mentioned in the book, is taken from the play The Maids of Orleans by Friedrich Schiller, and each title corresponds very nicely with the contents.

The first bit, “Against Stupidity,” details the struggle of a physicist-turned-somewhat-historian chronicling the invention of the “Electron Pump,” which produces free, unlimited energy with no downsides that is generated by exchanging matter with a different universe with different physical laws. The Pump’s inventor more or less stumbles into inventing it, and most of the technical work was supplied to him through mysterious beings in the other universe, about whom nothing is known, with whom communication is nearly impossible, and without whom the pump will not work, as they are the ones exchanging material.

Naturally, the man credited with inventing unlimited energy becomes an academic giant who rules the academic world with the iron fist of patronage, and much of the first third of the book is a criticism of academia (and particularly its patronage system) and human greed (which causes people to ignore danger when it is easier to deny it). The young scientist who stars in this part of the book, who finds out that the physical laws of the two universes are leaking into each other with disastrous consequences for mankind, spends the first part struggling in vain against mankind’s stupidity and illicitly contacting the “para-universal” beings on the other side of the pump.

The second part was the centrepiece of the book and by far the most interesting and fascinating. The para-beings on the other side of the Electron Pump are, compared to mankind, technological gods. The second part of the book focuses on these “gods,” and takes place in the other universe, focusing on those beings exchanging matter with mankind. What makes this part so brilliant is Asimov’s ability to create utterly alien races and at the same time make them very easy to relate to. One of the unnamed races he described have three sexes that interact in fascinating ways, and I shan’t say more about them as it would absolutely spoil the absolutely brilliant twist that forced me to put down the book for a good twenty minutes to get my bearing. It was simply the best twist I have ever encountered in television or on paper.

The third part, “…contend in vain,” is back in our universe, and takes place on the Moon. It deals with many “hard science” aspects of life on the moon, and brought the anime Planetes to mind in its discussion of native Lunarians (to borrow the Planetes term). In the last third of this very short book, Asimov touches on a lot of the sociopolitical issues of colonization, while simultaneously tying up the loose ends in the first two parts. The title fits a little less well here, as they in the end are not contending in vain, but perhaps the title refers to the lie that the chapter is exposing.

The fact that this book was originally serialized as three stories is rather obvious, as the three parts are rather disconnected thematically, and are only connected by the Electron Pump, which is the focus of part one, more fully explain in part two, and then resolved in part three. Each segment, though, also has its own important aspects of social criticism: part one criticizes greed and academic patronage, part two criticized greed and presented a fascinating alien society and parallel universe, and finally, part three dealt with issues of power and separatism on a colonial holding.

As in his other work, Asimov’s writing can be a bit clunky, and his individual human characters are somewhat flat, but his alien characters absolutely shine, as well as his spot-on presentation and analysis of various social problems that continue to plague us today. The book is well-worth reading, and definitely would be high on a list of science fiction books everyone should read.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2014 in Readings

 

The Art of Surprise

I think the word “suddenly” is one of the most overused words in the English language. The word has its uses, but it is not as useful a word as many think it is, in my own humble opinion. The word is an adverb, and if you adhere to Stephen King’s writing recommendations, this makes it inherently evil. While I don’t think adverbs are as terrible as Mr. King does, “suddenly” is an adverb that should immediately arouse suspicion.

Why? Because the word is counterproductive. The word “suddenly” is supposed to inform the reader that something is happening very quickly and is coming as a surprise or shock. But by informing the reader of the upcoming surprise, it spoils the surprise. For example: George lay down in his soft bed, lulled quickly into the depths of slumber by the constant chirps of the crickets outside. He dreamt of cake and cherry pie, and danced a merry jig with the lord of the ladybugs. Suddenly, the chirps stopped. George was awake in an instant. In that example, the word functions as a connector. It marks the transition from the soothing world of cricket chirps to the eerie world of silence. It makes the transition more obvious, less subtle, and most importantly for those who use the word, less awkward.

If you remove the “suddenly” from the example, it becomes: George lay down in his soft bed, lulled quickly into the depths of slumber by the constant chirps of the crickets outside. He dreamt of cake and cherry pie, and danced a merry jig with the lord of the ladybugs. The chirps stopped. George was awake in an instant. This doesn’t really work, as without the mark of the transition, we have no real sense of time or when the transition is taking place.

Yet, at the same time, the “suddenly” takes away from the surprise by warning you that you are going to be surprised. It is a red flag that tells the reader that something unexpected is going to happen. As a result, you expect the unexpected, and the impact of the surprise is lessened. So, the question becomes, how can you make the reader genuinely surprised and shocked, but also make the writing flow and make sense?

My own answer to this is the paragraph. Paragraphs mark divisions, but because they can mark a much wider range of divisions than the word “suddenly,” the reader doesn’t necessarily know that something unexpected will happen when they get to the next paragraph. As a result, we get:

George lay down in his soft bed, lulled quickly into the depths of slumber by the constant chirps of the crickets outside. He dreamt of cake and cherry pie, and danced a merry jig with the lord of the ladybugs.

The chirps stopped. George was awake in an instant.

For me, at least, this last example is the most powerful because of the abruptness of the switch. There isn’t a clear warning sign in the form of a connecting word; the surprise and suddenness of the event in question is conveyed by the abrupt writing and George’s reaction; the last example shows instead of tells. And, unlike the second example, the paragraph break allows the reader to differentiate between two flows of time; the status quo described in the first paragraph, and the disruption of that status quo in the second. To me, an abrupt breaking of the status quo, with no connecting words but a clear differentiation between two moments in time, is the best way to express surprise.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2014 in Writing

 
 
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