Okay, as we’re getting ready for NaNoWriMo (it’s just days away, folks!), it seems timely to talk about invention for a minute.
What is invention, after all?
Let’s blow the dust off an old Latin text by Horace (from the Ars Poetica):
Either follow tradition or invent what is self-consistent. … If it is an untried theme you entrust to the stage, and if you boldly fashion a fresh character, have it kept to the end even as it came forth at the first, and have it self-consistent. (Horace, Ars Poetica, 119-127, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough)
Let’s consider first why Horace suggests to his readers that they “follow tradition.” That’s not invention! you say. For us blessed moderns, we scoff at this notion of invention. But let’s take a closer look.
We have to recognize that for the classical Latin poets as well as for poets of the Middle Ages, invention largely meant revisiting and refreshing old stories. Think of the blind bard in the tavern, who spins his lays and amplifies and alters as he travels from town to town. And think of the bards who succeed him, taking his tales, adding their own spice and flavor. That, for Horace and the medieval poets, is the very heart of invention. As Geoffrey Chaucer would put it, it’s tilling old fields and growing new corn. It’s re-imagining.
And, given that Those Who Know tell us that there are really only like 7 plots in the entire known universe of language and literature, there really may be something to what Horace has to say.
Let’s take an example.
Lady meets Gentleman at a party. Lady likes Gentleman, but Gentleman scorns her for being a country bumpkin. Gentleman’s BFF likes Lady’s Sister. Gentleman thinks Sister isn’t giving BFF the time of day and tells him to find a new love. Lady is totally enraged, so when Gentleman discovers that, lo and behold, he loves Lady, she rejects him with scorn. Gentleman sets out to win Lady’s heart by kindnesses, even helping to save Lady’s other sister Floozy from a disgraceful situation. In the end, Lady is won over and marries Gentleman, Sister marries BFF, and Floozy and Dude move away…far away…much to the relief of all.
It’s Pride and Prejudice, right?
Ye-es…but it doesn’t have to be. We could take this skeleton of a situation and bones of a plot and write any number of riffs on it. What if we set the story in the year 2050? What if we set it in 1920s Boston? What if the well-beloved forms of Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, and Bingley (not to mention Lydia and Wickham) were replaced with fully modern individuals with similar character traits but different situations and struggles? In making these changes, do we not have the makings of a new story, which has all the more depth and interest because it hearkens back to the story that gave it its beginning?
It’s a legitimate form of invention, this “following tradition” business. Don’t sneeze at it too hastily…you may cheat yourself out of a fantastic treasure trove of inspiration.
But what about Horace’s other directive, the one to those who choose to blaze their own literary trail? He charges said trail-blazers with the responsibility of self-consistency. What does that mean, exactly?
It does not mean that your character cannot have an arc.
Characters who don’t change, adapt, and overcome in relation to their circumstances are paper dolls. You can change their outfits, but they still have that stupid grin on their flat face no matter what.
It does mean that the arc your character follows needs to be consistent with his nature, personality, and traits with which you endow him at the story’s outset. It needs to make sense. J. Leigh alluded to this in her marvelous post on Wrangling Runaway Stories. To use her example, you can’t have Bob, heretofore an ordinary soul, suddenly have the ability to wield MIGHTY MAGICKS in face of almost certain destruction. (BTW, if you haven’t read that post, go do it right now and then come back. It’s hilarious…and very instructive!) Bob needs to find a way out of the conflict that is consistent with his established character.
Bottom line? Plot and character are absolutely intertwined. Underestimate their intimate connection at your own peril! This also means that whatever character elements you establish on page 1 had better either still be there on page THE END or change in a believable way. This is what Horace means by self-consistency.
So, where does this brief consideration of invention leave us as we contemplate our NaNoWriMo paths?
Story material is all around you. You can make a story from scratch, or you can reimagine a favorite story or myth in a totally new way, making it all your own. Either way, you’re on your way to NaNoWriMo success!