I remember a graduate class where the professor seemed pretty much stuck on the idea that character and plot were one in the same. We talked about it for seven thousand hours, going over seven thousand lines of Henry James whereby that professor proved, undeniably, that Henry James could make both plot and character equally dull and therefore indistinguishable from one another.
I'm really sorry, but I can't stand Henry James.
I'm not really sure why I took so much American Lit in grad school since that seems to be all we did. I actually do think there's a big difference between plot and character. What interested me way more, and what we almost never talked about, was the importance of setting.
Someone I read in grad school, when I was supposed to be reading Henry, was Eudora Welty. I saw her name on a bookstore shelf and I loved it.
Go ahead, say it: Eudora Welty.
It sounds like a children's book protagonist who is orphaned then left a fortune.I loved her name so much that I opened the book and saw it was about writing so I bought it. And she said this about setting:
"Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else... Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?..."
When I sit down to write, I see a person, then I see where that person is standing or sitting or looking out a window. I have absolutely no sense of that person until I see where they are physically. It kind of fills in: rainy, city, Saturday afternoon, boy on bus, looking out sooty window. That kind of thinking. I put the character in the setting, then their personality sort of emerges.
I think I'd like to go back to graduate school now, as the teacher this time, and talk for a really long time about how setting is really a character in the story, right along with the characters who talk and interact and change or remain static.
I always wonder how other writers start their stories. I definitely think place before person. If someone said, "Quick! Write about a wedding!" I wouldn't think about the couple. I would think about where: if it was the Presbyterian chapel in Swedenboro, Minnesota (if there is such a place) it would be an entirely different couple than the couple waiting on the steps of the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. The Minnesota couple would have begun saving for their first home and decided to use only green cleaning methods; the Las Vegas couple might be able to use the same public restroom.
I think everyone who writes works from a different circuit board. I'm just wondering what comes first for writers out there: the character or the place?