Painting Character and Plot

We talk occasionally about the unity of story, how it's supposed to hang together and keep us interested. But my writing pal, Lyn, brought me a tough question recently: How do characterizations fit into that unity of story?

At first thought – they don't. Characters are discrete, individualistic, and don't seem to led themselves to any sort of unity. As such they seem to be the anti-unity of story. But as I thought about this, I realized this view of story characters isn't true. The below, which was part of my response, might seem a bit arcane to literature's casual readers, but I'm sure you writers will "get it."

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image via thescienceofstory.blogspot.com

Literary criticism takes the long view, on both questions you are wondering about. Aristotle is definitely the structural unity guy – we still structure our fiction (and CNF) according to his precepts, except that we play with linear time in ways Aristotle didn't anticipate. There's no point in talking about post structuralism and post modernism in this context, because they mostly try to incorporate the "undecidability" of plot and character, which tends to lead to fragmented views of both.
In a sense, we're breaking new ground here – we're working from the viewpoints (and needs) of writers, not theorists or critics. As close as anyone comes in writing about fiction from this point are the ideas of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren that characterization must complement plot. I.e., if your plot is a simple one, you'd be mucking up the story with an overabundance of characters. But on the other hand if your story is complex, then you'll need multiple characters to "live out" those complexities. And the most succinct way of saying that is to ask the first of writer Charles Baxter's questions:
1) What do your characters want
The other three of his famous five as applied to characters are corollaries to that one:
2) What are they afraid of?
3) What's their stake in the story?
4) What are the consequences of their actions and participation in their scenes?
My opinion…based on these points:
1) it's one of texture – your characters as they pertain to developing plot (rising action, moment of epiphany, falling action) are up front. Other characters…have to be painted into the background, or simply referred to directly or obliquely.
The best way of looking at the seeming problem of unity as it involves characters and plot is to look at a story as a painting. The setting and some characters form a kind of backdrop on the painter's paper or canvas. Other characters are "up front" in that they are there to work out the story's main conflicts. And other charcters are painted "behind" these starred characters – to enliven the setting you've created, its mood and tone, and also to add nuance to the goings-on of your primary characters.
So there is a unity of character, but it's in the context of the whole: plot, setting, mood, and tone.
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