Plot and Character: Definition & Explanation

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      Our concepts of Plot and Character as separate entities derive from Aristotle’s Poetics. ‘Plot’, said Aristotle, ‘is the fundamental thing, the soul in Tragedy; whereas character is secondary.’ This dictum of Aristotle’s is the origin of the controversy regarding the relative importance of plot and character.

      Now, there are always two important things in a play or novel: something that happens, which is the story narrated in a novel, or represented as action on the stage in a play; secondly, a person or persons to whom it happens or who set it going, i. e. characters.

      Now, in a well-made play or novel, these balance each other; action springs out of character, and the progression of events helps character development. But why did Aristotle stress the primacy of plot?

      The reason he gives in justification of this preference is that a play cannot be constructed without a plot, while it may be without characters (i.e. character-portrayal in depth so that characters stand distinguished from one another by means of their individuality).

      The argument is not worthy of a philosopher, comments F. L. Lucas. Because a minimum of plot is more important than a minimum of character, it does not necessarily follow that plot in general is more important than character in general.

      Lucas attempts to explain this preference of Aristotle’s by the fact that Aristotle was an extrovert, that he saw character as the product of habitual action.

      But this explanation does not satisfy him. He prefers to understand the dictum with reference to Aristotle’s teleology. The end is what determined the nature of a thing for Aristotle. In this sense, the chain of events as well as the dispositions and ideas of the characters are only a means to the end of a play, i. e. the design, the “point of view” it presents. This is perhaps what Aristotle meant when he defined plot as “the synthesis of action”, or “the presentation of the whole story”. The Greek word for ‘plot’ is ‘mythos’ and finding the word ‘plot’ inadequate, L. J. Potts translates ‘mythos’ by ‘fable’. In this larger sense, plot is not merely a framework but the drift or tenor of the entire action. It thus harmonizes the various parts of the play or novel into an organic whole. The unity of action is crystallized in the shape of the plot, as Ashley Dukes remarks. The plot, says Edwin Muir, is not only the chain of events in a story, but the principle which knits them together. Order must be related to some end (Potts). So, this synthesis of action ultimately means the idea behind the play or novel. Regarded from this point of view, plot subsumes character. It becomes synonymous with Design, Pattern, Point of View or yet Rhythm.

      Now, to consider the question from another point of view, action, for Aristotle, meant something that happens. Hence it was a relatively subordinate point for him that this something happens to some (more or less well-defined) character. Also Greek tragedy was based on the idea of Fate. Fate is the final arbiter of human destiny. Characters are foredoomed from the beginning. Fate, which overrules human actions, decides the final issue. What the character is and becomes is also part of his destiny. Destiny is the overall motive force. So the business of the play comes to be to show the working out of destiny through a phased progression of events (leading to and away from a central crisis to the final resolution). Oedipus the King affords the best illustration of the Greek view of tragedy. No wonder Aristotle, who had a preference for this play, stressed the primacy of plot.

      But plot, understood as ‘the structure of events in a story’, as against the characters who cause it, varies in importance from playwright to playwright and novelist to novelist, as well as from one type of novel to another and from tragedy to comedy.

      In the novel of action, characters are made to serve the exigencies of the plot; in the novel of character, characters develop independently and the plot is improvised all along. In the dramatic novel, both are finely balanced. Character becomes plot and plot is the character. There is, therefore, an inner causation in this type of novel. It is this kind which corresponds to Tragedy, so far as the question of the relative importance of plot and character is concerned.

      In comedy, however, character assumes greater importance than plot. The fascination of Fal staff lies more in what he is than what he does. (For the simplicity and superficiality of comic characterization, however, see under ‘Tragedy and Comedy.’)

      Even in tragedy, Oedipus Rex is an exceptional play. Contrast it with ‘Prometheus Bound or Samson Agonistes, where so little occurs before the final catastrophe, and the play is filled with the character of the solitary hero.

      Plot and character become difficult to separate when action is shifted from the outer stage in the theatre to the inward theatre of the character’s soul, as in Chekov’s plays, or in the ‘Stream of Consciousness’ novel.

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