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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Character or Plot?

Most writers who appear on a platform, giving a reading or a talk, will come across the naïve question: What comes first for you, character or plot?
The question is unsophisticated, because in reality it is not possible to separate the two. Character is plot.

Character, in any sense in which we can get it, is action, and action is plot. Henry James.

I have written about this question before in various posts (use the search tool at the top of the page to find them).

But I thought the story of how George Eliot came across and developed the story of Adam Bede, might be instructive.

The story was suggested by an event in the life of Eliot’s aunt, Mrs Evans, a Methodist preacher. Mrs Evens had spent a night in prison with a convicted child-murderer, a mere girl. Evans had sought to make the girl recognize her guilt, and had then accompanied her to the hangman.

George Lewes, with whom Eliot lived in an open-marriage, suggested that the night in prison would make a good scene in a novel – and Adam Bede was conceived with that scene as its centerpiece.

Eliot created a seducer – obviously necessary to the plot – who was a young officer, heir to the local squire. But as well as her seducer, the girl, Hetty, is blessed with a true lover of her own class; Adam Bede.

George Lewes suggested that the novel should end with Adam’s marriage to the woman preacher, and that there should be a clash of some kind between Adam Bede and the young officer.

Leslie Stephen tells how, while she was listening to Wilhelm Tell at the Munich opera, George Eliot was inspired to make the two rivals fight.

The aunt’s story is softened considerably, in that Hetty is not guilty of murder, but only of temporary desertion of her baby. And neither is Hetty hanged, but instead transported to Botany Bay.

I find it both amusing and instructive to have the ability to follow the mind of a great novelist and to glimpse how different people and influences impinge on the development of her story.

2 Responses to “Character or Plot?”

  1. Boxofficegirl says:

    I agree John, character and plot are interwoven and one will not do without the other.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the reference to Adam Bede too which I haven’t read for years. I shall read with new eyes next time.

    jb says: Hi Tracey. Good to see you here again. Maybe ‘next time’ will be soon?

  2. What an interesting post! I’ve often been asked that type of question – I really like the conciseness of your response, “Character is plot.”

    In my first published novel all the characters were completely fictional, but many of the settings are based on real places, so I was intrigued to read that Eliot used her own visit to a prison as a scene in Adam Bede. I’ve got a scene in a police cell and interview room in my novel, based on notes I took after accompanying a woman who came to literacy classes at an adult education centre where I worked.

    I’ll be putting a post on my site soon, quoting from a real-life collection of love-letters from the 1920s in China, which I’ve adapted for one of the story threads in my new novel. I found the process of plundering someone else’s life rather weird. (I’ve changed names dates and venues, so they would be unrecognisable to anyone)