Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 6(D): Plot First, Character Second

July 14th, 2013 by

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 6(D): Plot First, Character Second

But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy
is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life
consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.
Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions
that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is
not with a view to the representation of character: character comes
in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot
are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again,
without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.
The tragedies of most of our modern poets fail in the rendering of
character; and of poets in general this is often true. It is the same
in painting; and here lies the difference between Zeuxis and Polygnotus.
Polygnotus delineates character well; the style of Zeuxis is devoid
of ethical quality. Again, if you string together a set of speeches
expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and
thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so
well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet
has a plot and artistically constructed incidents. Besides which,
the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy- Peripeteia
or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes- are parts of
the plot. A further proof is, that novices in the art attain to finish
of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct
the plot. It is the same with almost all the early poets.

The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul
of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is
seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will
not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus
Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with
a view to the action.

If you remember anything of Aristotle in relation to writing, it’s probably this: Plot is the first principle. He is unequivocal about that point, repeating it often.

How he gets to that point is intriguing. It appears he starts by drawing a distinction between action and quality.

Of the former he associates words and phrases such as incidents, life, mode of action. Even his assignation for what we, as screenwriters, would refer to as a ‘character’ — personal agent — implies action.

Of the latter he draws a connection to the term character, but I think he means it in this way: moral or ethical quality. As in, “She is a person of high character.”

So purely at the most basic sense of things, it’s hard to argue against Aristotle’s point: If Tragedy is “an imitation… of an action and of life,” then it is ultimately dependent upon the “structure of the incidents.” That is Plot.

And yet as I indicated in previous posts, I can’t get away from what seems to me to be an equally inescapable fact: you can not have incidents, action, life or Plot without Characters. Or not to confuse matters because of his use of the term in this section — “Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions” — and by character here, I take it he means a moral or ethical quality of an individual, then let’s say it this way:

You can not have Plot without Personal Agents.

Plots do not exist in a vacuum. By necessity, they require Personal Agents. Or else how would a story have incidents, actions, or life? Who creates those incidents or actions, or have a life but characters?

Let me try to make this point by referencing another ancient text: The two creation myths in the book of Genesis from the Bible.

In the first account (Genesis 1:1-2:3), God creates the universe and everything in it in six days: The first three days acts of division: darkness from light, waters above from waters below, sea from land. The next three days, God populates this new environment, the darkness and light with sun, moon and stars, the seas and skies with fish and birds, the land with animals and finally humans.

Great, right? Here we have this place and these generic people. At this point, it is an origin narrative, but without a plot.

In the second account (Genesis 2:4-2:25), God creates a man, literally breathing the “breath of life” into man formed out of the “dust of the ground.” And it was this man, Adam who desired a helpmate. So God put Adam into a deep sleep, removed one of his ribs, and created a woman, named Eve.

And we all know what happens next. The serpent, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the commandment not to eat its fruit… which Adam and Even do, and the Fall from Grace.

Now you have a story! A Tragedy at that.

So to drive home my point, consider the last paragraph from Poetics featured today:

The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view to the action.

If by ‘character’ here Aristotle means moral or ethical values, they would be the “beautiful colors” associated with a static painting. But we, as humans, want more than that, we want stories, even the simple “pleasure” of a “chalk outline” which provides a structure of the narrative. And in order to have that narrative, we need an “imitation of an action, and of the agents [emphasis added] mainly with a view to the action.”

Therefore when Aristotle talks about Plot, he implies the presence of Personal Agents. You can not dissociate them. So if what you have thought about “Poetics” is that Aristotle puts Plot first and Character second, that is, in my view, a misunderstanding of terms. Moral or ethical values, those “beautiful colors,” sure, they are secondary in importance to Plot. But since we cannot have a Plot without Personal Agents, both must by definition exist side-by-side in their importance in crafting a story.

Why is this particularly important in terms of screenwriting? Because in my view, there is way too much focus on screenplay structure, and not enough focus on developing characters. Properly perceived, when developing characters, we concurrently develop plot. And when developing plot, we concurrently develop characters.

As the creation myths in Genesis remind us, we cannot have a story unless we have characters who create incidents, events, actions and have lives.

A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.

How about you? What do you take from Part 6(D) of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

For the entire series, go here.

7 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 6(D): Plot First, Character Second

  1. I think what Aristotle means here is actually the goal of the main character and the sequence of actions. In the German translation, it says MYTH instead of plot. Could this mean what we consider genre writing today?

    Genre actually represents the plot of a story. In this sense, plot is much more important than character, because it comes first. You will always have to find a frame for your content. You need to establish boundaries, a confinement for you characters in which they can grow and blossom.

    For example, John Truby categorizes genres by the desire of the main character. Just check if you agree with those:

    1. Myth (Desire: to go on a journey that ultimately leads to oneself)
    2. Action (Desire: to engage in battle)
    3. Love (Desire: to find love)
    4. Crime (Desire: to catch a criminal)
    5. Detective (Desire: to find the truth)
    6. Thriller (Desire: to find the truth while escaping attack)
    7. Horror (Desire: to defeat a monster)
    8. Fantasy (Desire: to explore an imaginary world)
    9. Science-Fiction (Desire: to deal with the tools of an imaginary world)

    I think that’s what Aristotle means with plot being more important. He basically says that the beginning, middle and end – the SEQUENCE of the events – is more important than the characters.

    1. Scott says:

      Sven, I appreciate your interpretation, and I don’t believe there is any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about any of this stuff, each of us as writers has to figure out on own way into and through all the ideas and theories we intersect with.

      But I’m just not prepared to go to this: “Genre actually represents the plot of a story. In this sense, plot is much more important than character, because it comes first. You will always have to find a frame for your content. You need to establish boundaries, a confinement for you characters in which they can grow and blossom.”

      In some cases, this may very well be the case. A writer may say, “Wow, I want to write a heist movie,” and so their inspiration for the setting and characters arise from that. Okay, so in that situation, perhaps you could say that plot took primacy over characters, at least in terms of its origination.

      But what of stories where it begins with characters, genre as yet not revealed? Or even if the genre IS revealed, it still comes after the characters? Is the plot STILL more “important”?

      And what if a writer starts with theme? Or an image? Or a scene?

      Plus in all that, we’re talking about the origination of the story. In terms of its development, my guess is every writer does that wonderful little dance, bouncing back and forth between plotting and character work, each informing the other. As pgronk said in his comments: “My personal perspective is that plot and character constitute a dynamic Tao — a yin & yang in perpetual give and take.”

      That feels right to me.

      Now I will grant you this – and this is where I think of all narrative forms, perhaps screenplays come closest to the traditional perception of Aristotle, that Plot is the first principle: Movies are the foundation to make a movie. I dislike the term ‘blueprint,’ but in some ways that is an accurate description of a script’s role in the production of a film. And in that sense, its structure is absolutely critical. Hence when William Goldman says, “Screenplays are structure,” I think we can all grasp the relevance of that comment.

      My concern is HOW WE GET THERE. At the risk of beating a virtual dead horse, after reading literally thousands of scripts in my life, I think there is direct correlation between formulaic writing and screenplay formulas. You may have a perfectly crafted a script where every plot point lands precisely where it’s supposed per conventional wisdom or whatever screenwriting guru’s paradigm you subscribe to, but if it has no LIFE, no VITALITY, no SURPRISES, it’s not a good script. And where does LIFE and VITALITY and SURPRISES come from?

      CHARACTERS!!!

      Yes, as evidenced through events and occurrences in the Plot, but precipitated and actuated BY the characters.

      Hence my refusal to yield on this point: It all starts with character and ends with character. And I don’t see that as diminishing Plot because in my view Character = Plot. Their backgrounds and psyches intersecting with the structure of the story universe, events lead to choices, choices lead to actions, actions lead to events, and the cycle weaves through the narrative in a wonderful tapestry… at least in theory!

      So yet another diatribe on this point. Why do I keep hammering on this point? I guess because I’m an old fart who is weary of too many movies being exercises in soulless visual and audio masturbation, shit blowing up with little to no discernable emotional meaning. Whereas if the filmmakers had taken time to live with and immerse themselves in characters, they may have opened up the story to so many more points of human connection and resonance.

      Re Truby’s list: If it helps you or others, great. I would just say to relegate “to go on a journey that ultimately leads to oneself” to myth as a single genre isn’t helpful to me at all because virtually ALL stories are about self-identity (as worked out primarily through the Protagonist) at some level, grappling with this fundamental question: Who am I? I mean that’s one of Joseph Campbell’s point about the Hero’s Journey: “Become who you are,” the ultimate reason for ANY story is to put the Protagonist on a journey of self-discovery.

      Anyhow thanks for you comments. Always invigorating to contemplate. Again no right or wrong, all of us just swimming in the roiling waters of creativity, trying to find our way to shore, from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

      1. No worries, Scott. There are as many approaches as there are writers. There are also as many beliefs as there are believers and I agree there’s no wrong way to go about it.

        In my education, I learned nothing about the popular genres whatsoever. At my school we studied the art of Drama and the art of Myth, always beginning by developing characters first.

        When you are going to the cinema though, are you asking yourself what kind of character you want to see? Or are you asking yourself: Am I the mood for Science-Fiction, Horror or Romantic Comedy today? It’s the sugar coating that most people are interested in.

        Of course, nowadays you need to combine at least two genres to make your story appear fresh, otherwise the audience will be able to predict the plot points and you will bore them to tears (At least in cinema – German TV is all about mediocre love and detective stories).

        Myth is the oldest form that can be found all around the world – Joseph Campbell proved that a long time ago – so you will probably find elements of that in a lot of modern movies for the single reason that people recognize the character journey. You can only surprise someone if he’s expecting something else.

        When I finished my logline I’m always looking for the genres that I can mine to develop the idea into a screenplay. There will already be vague ideas about character and plot in my head. What I’m interested in is to find the spine of my story. In that frame, I can create anything and I can even break it later if that’s cool.

        In the crime genre for example, it’s clear that you need a criminal, a cop (or another form of law enforcer), a crime, a battle and a resolution. The desire of the cop is to catch the criminal. You can add whatever you want to that. Combine it with the myth form for example (make it a journey for the cop OR the criminal to discover himself along the way – depending on who’s the main character) and you probably get a superhero movie. Now it’s your job to come up with the characters. That’s hardly what I call a limiting paradigma.

  2. pgronk says:

    Aristotle (cerca: 330 BC):
    The tragedies of most of our modern poets fail in the rendering of character; and of poets in general this is often true.

    Scott Myers (2013 AD):
    There is way too much focus on screenplay structure, and not enough focus on developing characters.

    So both Aristotle and Scott seem to be on the same page in their lamentation about weak characterization. And for Aristotle, the remedy for weak characterization is… Jung’s typology, Freud’s unconscious, Maslow’s heirarchy of needs—

    But, of course, none of those paradigms existed in his day. For Aristotle, the only definition of character was to be found in the choices people made. People can talk the talk — but talk is cheap, can be deceitful or delusional. Ultimately,what really reveals and defines character is whether they walk the walk — the choices they make.

    Consequently,my personal takeaway from reading Aristotle is that that the sum total of all character choices is the essential raw material for a plot. Sufficient by itself for a good plot? No, the choices need to be molded and causally concatenated [mimesis] by the discipline of structure and pacing.

    My personal perspective is that plot and character constitute a dynamic Tao — a yin & yang in perpetual give and take.

    It seems to me that Aristotle’s emphasis on plot reflects his perceptive — but limited — knowledge of human nature 23 centuries ago — and the constraints and limitations of the theater of his day (No CGI!)

    1. Scott says:

      Wow, pgronk, that really helps me in my understanding: “the sum total of all character choices is the essential raw material for a plot.” And that speaks to Aristotle’s emphasis on “incidents” and “action,” doesn’t it?

      This series has been a wonderful experience. There is nothing quite like digging into primary source material and meeting the ideas head on. This goes for screenplays, too, one of the many reasons I extol the virtue of that exercise.

      Anyhow thanks much for accompanying us on this journey. Much to come as I imagine this series will pretty much take up the whole year.

  3. pgronk says:

    Scott:

    I wholeheartedly subscribe to your diatribe against formulaic screenwriting and cardboard characterization.

    And yet Aristotle’s antidote to the latter seems to be plotting. Specifically, as noted in the latest excerpt from “The Poetics, plotting that incorporates “the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy — Peripetia or Reveral of the Situation, and Recognition scenes.” Is he right? Is that sufficient? Or is there more to it?

    “The plot is a conspiracy against the protagonist” — the single best definition I have ever read of what a plot is supposed to be. So, my own inquiry into Aristotle has been a quest for a good “conspiracy theory”.

    Thank you for the opportunity to take this quest through “The Poetics”. Looking forward to getting lost, trapped in insolvable predicaments, doing battle (civilly) with opposing ideas and opinions, emerging at the end with fresh discoveries and, perchance, a peripety.

  4. Apologies for being such a laggard this week (my excuse is that I’ve been away actually writing). This section seems to me to be the real meat of what we struggle with as story writers. I was struck by Aristotle’s comment that “novices in the art attain to finish of diction and the precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot.” This reminded me of what some of my instructors used to growl at us back when I was working on an MFA in fiction – that it didn’t matter how “pretty” our writing was, or how quirky and interesting the characters, there still had to be a coherent plot, or we didn’t have a worthwhile story – that is, those quirky characters had to DO something, make choices, act, and react, to make the story work.

    But as you point out, Scott, if there’s only plot, with no fully developed, fleshed-out characters, the story quickly devolves into nothing but soulless, masturbatory spectacle (I’m so with you on being weary of watching shit blow up; and if I want to see tits, I can just look down. . .).

    Thank you so much for leading us on this quest, Scott – it’s far less intimidating to tackle this work in such wise company, and I look forward to studying and learning much more.

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