On Story: Plots of Fortune
As a speculative fiction author, I am always—at the very least—passively consuming information on current storytelling trends. In critiques of my own work and criticisms of popular entertainment today, I regularly hear, ‘What about the character’s development?’ This can be a very formative question for a writer, especially when ironing out the kinks and knots of one’s story. It might be obvious to some authors how their characters develop as we live in said character’s head, and therefore be quite difficult to not realise how a character’s journey is evolving, however, I have another proposal.
We have grown accustomed to a certain type of storytelling. It is extremely common in modern stories to hit the same narrative beats. It starts with a protagonist that has an external and/or internal conflict that must be resolved by the end of the novel. Their view of the world/themselves is dramatically affected towards the end and helps them overcome the antagonist. Yet, this is not only vague, but also not the only option available to authors trying to tell dynamic and pervasive stories.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the story elements that our media has today weren’t always popular, and what is popular today in the west isn’t necessarily the same in other cultures. Rather than a history lesson, I would like to bring forth Norman Friedman’s Story Plots. This comprehensive list was based on the classifications by R. R. Crane, with additional considerations of responsibility, attractiveness, success and impact on the audience.
To Friedman, the main purpose of the storyline is to evoke emotions in the audience through a sequence of cause, means, effects and ending—but this plot-line is told through the journey of the character.
Now, Friedman’s three categories (Plots of Fortune, Plots of Character and Plots of Thought) have their own subgroups, but there can be quite a bit of overlap. A character’s plot can also change in sequels or arch over an entire series. There is also room to apply these to other characters because, as Kurt Vonnegut once said:
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
In this essay I will be looking at plots of fortune. In plots of fortune, the principle character of the story has their situations or circumstances changed within the story.
The Action Plot
Despite what I said above, the Action Plot is straight forward, and no real fortune is gained or lost. It is, in its essence, the most neutral of the plots in that there is a discovery of a problem and the protagonist has to solve it. Think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
Generally speaking, these protagonists don’t necessarily grow (but they can), as the plot is more for the mystery aspect with great examples often sucking the audience in and feeling considerably more interactive as they try to guess the whodunit.
That being said, I would argue that V E Schwab’s Vicious would lie in this category, with tension built over the course of the chapters and in revelations made throughout the book, however neither of the main characters go through what we would consider a significant arc. Victor makes friends, but he is still prepared to do what he wants to do at the start of the novel—without hesitation—as is Eli. The book merely acts as a puzzle for the audience to piece together, building up excitement as the chapters literally count down to the climax.
The Pathetic Plot
This plot is not for the faint-hearted, what with the main weak character falling into misfortune, getting respite and then living or dying unhappily. Think Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. This kind of storytelling can also be well used in grimdark pieces and quite often for memoirs.
The general idea for the Pathetic Plot is that it evokes empathy in the reader, and quite possibly reflection on their own lives. They aren’t for everyone, however, with some wondering why they are such “depressing” books.
The Tragic Plot
Similar to the Pathetic Plot in that the fortune is in decline, the Tragic Plot revolves around a character that starts off as a strong protagonist and then triggers their own misfortune. Think Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Othello (or any Greek Tragedy).
Unlike the Pathetic Plot, however, the Tragic Plot can also offer up a lesson learned, rather than the universe seemingly kicking a dog while it is down.
The Punitive Plot
This follows someone who is actually genuinely unlikeable, but we are won over by their charisma. In the end, however, they get their comeuppance, as seen in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
The Punitive Plot plays into two parts of the audience’s psyche. The first is that there is a wish-fulfilment at play: many people have fantasies of pushing boundaries, speaking back to those we do not respect and in many ways, not being “politically correct.” The end acts as a catharsis (particularly for those that hate the protagonist or have trauma in their own lives) by reaffirming the moral standard: justice prevails.
The Sentimental Plot
This plot is not used very much anymore, for reasons which will become clear. The Sentimental Plot follows an “attractive” protagonist (not necessarily aesthetically attractive, but morally or something) who is not a quintessential hero. Instead these characters are frail, passive or have other limitations. They grow by necessity. They are reactive rather than active in their own story, meaning a lot of their agency is non-existent.
Finding an example for this was quite difficult as these kinds of characters are not sought out as much anymore. My mind fell to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, with the idea that Katniss Everdeen is quite reactive for much of the plot and continues to be pulled around well into the sequels. That being said, her limitations in this circumstance would be her class and poverty.
This plot helps audiences feel better about their own situations and makes them reflect and think, ‘If the protagonist can survive this, my problems aren’t as bad.’
The Admiration Plot
In this plot, the hero is “normal.” They aren’t a prince, general, or trained master assassin. They are you or your neighbour. They win in the end thanks to their moral fibre and integrity. They are the symbol of human kindness in everyday people, with deep wells of strength and responsibility that can be called upon in times of need.
This is where Luke Skywalker sits in George Lucas’ Star Wars original trilogy, and quite a lot of protagonists in shōnen manga, yet they needn’t always stay here.
The main connecting thread between all these plots is that the central character has their situation or circumstances changed by the story.
Next: Plots of Character
© 2019 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.