In an earlier post, ‘No Offence?’ I touched on the idea of certain modes of storytelling, and how important the ‘profile’ of certain content can be to determining its effectiveness as a piece of prose.
This isn’t just some jargon I made up to feel self-important. This is a direct reference to a method that I often use in my own fiction to help in identifying what kind of story I’m telling. It’s one of the first questions I ask myself when I’m determining the focus of the story and its content: Which one of the three profiles of fiction am I using?
My perspective on profiles doesn’t have anything to do with the oft-cited ‘seven kinds of stories’ or any other element of writing directly related to plot and methodology. By ‘profile’ I’m referring to a specific focus that any piece of fiction has. Of the three basic profiles below, all fiction wears the garb of one of these profiles – or mixes and matches accordingly. I believe that any fiction can be strengthened or shattered based on how it incorporates these three profiles. (As a side note, poetry can potentially be modelled off the same principles, but this is more of a general fiction practice.)
To freshen up the lecture a little, let’s give these profiles some identity. Let’s build their archetypes in a way based on some classic characters that would make closet role-playing fans proud. Without further adieu, I introduce you to the warrior, the thief and the mage.
This is the plot profile. Hack, slash, save the princess and kill the dragon – oh and carve through some of that weighty exposition while you’re at it. There’s no time for scrolling through text-blocks of conversation! The quest must be completed!
In their purest form, these stories are the swashbuckling adventures that are most commonly found in airport newsagencies and on top of bedside tables. Warrior stories often shy away from meaningful character or theme development because what matters most is the plot, and the sheer momentum of stuff happening. Any character arcs or themes are in direct service to the progression of the story’s events.
This is the most common way to write a story, and often the most effective when it comes to captivating an audience quickly and effectively right from the opening sentence. It also suffers the most from the incessant ‘popular v literary’ debate, usually being firmly entrenched in the popular end of the divide.
With such a position on the divided line, warrior stories can often be labelled as dumb or shallow – sometimes justifiably, but sometimes unfairly.
The character profile. The thief lives for rewarding interactions and the quieter moments – while that muscle-brained warrior is storming on ahead and getting himself into constant trouble with dragons, the thief lingers and learns a little more about what’s going on. A good thief cases the surrounding world and lives in an environment where people are assessed – their importance, threat or benefit is carefully logged.
Thief stories are very much in vogue these days – these stories don’t necessarily lack plot, but they have made a conscious decision to focus more on relationships and character development. They are often cerebral, slower-paced and rely on the numerous interactions between characters to further the story. The modern tag of ‘contemporary fiction’ is often used for novels that seek to blend deep character interaction with a serviceable but non-sensationalist plot.
This can be a rich and engaging profile, but also a risky one. A common tag in Melbourne is ‘the Carlton café novel’. This refers to the notion of a book that self-important authors might write as a thinly-veiled way of placing themselves in stories that favour style over substance. It’s a narrow assessment, but it summarises the inherent risks of writing in this profile. A good thief won’t get caught in ‘navel-gazing’ or redundant conversations.
The theme profile. This is all about the esoteric – the mind over matter, and the application of higher principles. That dragon doesn’t need to be ‘slain’ – maybe it doesn’t even need to be encountered at all. Or even more, maybe it’s a metaphor for greed or perhaps anti-feminism (has anyone ever considered whether the princess wants or needs saving?). Reality itself is a construct, and there’s something greater lying behind the materialism that the mage uses to full effect.
In other words, the mage profile doesn’t care about events or people as much as it cares about the ideas and non-material aspects of the surrounding world.
It goes without saying that this is the most difficult form of fiction to make both engaging and entertaining. Mage stories are often considered the most socially relevant or the most intellectually rewarding, but it’s also the profile most likely to blow up in the writer’s face – like when a wizard in a movie botches a spell and turns some poor kid into a field mouse.
This is the realm of allegory and commentary. It’s fine in a controlled dose to add cultural relevance or nuance, but unchecked it can slide into rampant soapboxing – or worse, a story that has lost all sense of storytelling.
Often a single book will slide in and out of different profiles depending on its immediate requirements. A plot-based book will find time to slow down and analyse its characters. A book focused on characters will connect those characterisations to a unifying statement. The best books, of course, know how to cherry-pick from all three profiles to fulfil its purposes. But any individual writer will always have a profile they’re most comfortable with.
So what profile does your writing defer to the most, and why?
Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen