Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Memory, Action, and Plot

Memories provide more than just information - they change our characters.  We are the product of our memories.  And in well-written, character-driven fiction, those memories will change the ways our characters behave.  And this, in turn, makes them critical in the development of your plot.
The Future Focus of Science Fiction
In many works of science fiction, the problem is centered on the future.  The characters aren't fighting over something that has happened, but are rather fighting to avert the disaster that could happen or is happening.  Stories of alien invasions, rogue computers, and runaway plagues are well suited to this kind of focus.  One classical example - Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park - shows the wonderful potential offered by the mystical combination of science and fear.  The dinosaurs run amok, the park's security features are all disabled, and people are getting eaten one-by-one.  Do we really have time to work out the mysteries of who we are and why?  Not really.  Because we know that velociraptors run at 10 m/s and they do not know fear.

Crichton, however, does a good job writing characters who are well-balanced.  They have independent lives and motives outside of the conflict of being chased down by dinosaurs.  And although they may set aside their general life goals in favor of immediate survival, we are at least interested in them as people.  Some writers, on the other hand, forget this.  They end up writing their main protagonists as stock characters - taciturn warriors, shrieking victims, and egghead scientists end up taking the place of true-to-life individuals.

Why Is Memory So Important?
As we've discussed, memory is a critical component of making our characters whole and complete as individuals.  Because of this, it also plays an integral role in developing effective, character-driven plot.  Memories change who people are, and this affects how they think and act.

Let's consider "Kaleidoscope."  In this piece, Hollis reaches a point of desperation as he listens to the Lespere's pleasant and happy memories.  It pains him to realize that his own life was wasted.  And he can't take this lying down.  So he lashes out.  He declares that they're all dead men, that no one man is better than another.  And this helps us understand why he was so ready - and able - to kill another man for the mere crime of screaming and screaming.  Willie Johnson in "The Other Shoe" is likewise ready to act based on his own tortured memories of oppression.

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