I recently attended a short writing workshop out of personal interest. As the presenter discussed the elements of a good story she asked a question that I hadn’t thought about before.
Is your story ‘plot-driven’ or ‘character-driven’?
In the former, the plot is the carrier of the story. You know the ones I mean. The hero sets out on his or her adventure, there are mountains to scale and rivers to cross, there is a villain to be slain, there are trials and tribulations, but in the end the victory is had. The secret uncovered, the gold discovered, the hero rides off happily into the sunset to live and fight another day. You might not learn much about the character of the hero (other than that he’s six foot tall, craggy and handsome, smokes Marlboros, and is very brave), but you’ve gone on a great adventure.
In the later, the character becomes the story, with the plot being a vehicle for the internal workings of the people within the story. So we learn about the deeper motivations, the thoughts, the hopes and dreams and the struggles that the characters deal with in heart and mind. The plot functions as a vehicle to carry the character through a phase or period of their development. There’s not always a happy ending, but we learn more about how the character has developed.
While I like both types of stories, I’d have to admit a leaning towards character-driven stories. I like learning about people and the motivations that carry them forward. I can identify with the deeper thoughts and struggles that characters undergo. I empathise with them and that makes the story more satisfying to me.
Though I do like a good action-adventure novel now and then!
As with most things, I found myself relating these two modes of story-writing to how a yoga practice may be approached, experienced, and constructed.
The word ‘yoga’ translates to mean ‘union’. To me the practice of yoga is a profound development of character when applied in my life more broadly than on the yoga mat. In our day-to-day lives, there are many opportunities for character-deepening, just as there are opportunities for an action-packed physical adventure. Or maybe not so action-packed. Just living through a normal busy day of work, homelife, and social responsibilities can be adventurous enough!
The daily ‘plot-driven’ nature of our lives can become a dry crust, however, if all we experience focuses on the surface play. When the opportunity is taken or created to focus on deepening awareness of our being, even in the flow of a day-to-day life, you have stepped into what I’d call the ‘character-driven’ aspect of life. Simply putting attention on the breath and feeling into the rhythm of the body creates a sense of space in the midst of the busy press of the day-to-day. Here is opportunity to notice a fleeting thought of judgement, feel this moment of vulnerability, and open the heart to a sense of deeper wisdom in choosing your next action.
On the mat, a vigorous vinyasa flow with 25 sun salutes can get the skin glowing and heat flowing in the body and it feels GOOD! Not particularly focusing on anything other than the movements of my body, the swing of my foot, the placement of my hands – the sheer enjoyment of movement. A ‘plot-driven’ practice, all about the poses, takes me fully into my physical being and is very valuable. Most often, though, and what attracted me to the practice of yoga in the first place, is the opportunity to touch in deeply to my ‘character-driven’ aspect of self – mindfulness, meditation, conscious focus on breathing, plumbing the depths of awareness – all this has yielded me with deeper understanding of my motivations, my innate wisdom, my strengths and weaknesses.
We live in physical bodies, but we are so much more than our physical selves. There is the transcendent luminous energy of life with which we are all connected. Bringing the physical and the transcendent together is union. The ultimate story must be a combination of plot AND character. So we each, in our own unique way, create our life’s story.