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.