Sunday, 20 July 2008

Plot and character

I've started reading a book about how to write fiction. It's called "Writing. The Craft of Creative Fiction". I love the movies, you see, and desire to understand how movies are dreamed up and put together. I found this book in the public library; it was published in 1964, which would be considered old these days, but I like it because it's old. Some modern books about writing are so chatty and once-over-lightly they're unreadable. Or they tell you how to run your life, which always grates with me. But this one was written by a guy called Olaf Ruhen, who Steve tells me was born in Dunedin (where I live!), and he's thought hard about his craft and has shared some insightful ideas about it.

Chapter 2 of the book is called "Plotting" and discusses what a plot is and how one is developed. Olaf Ruhen describes methods that authors have used to come up with plots. For me, a key factor to come out of this discussion, and a point that Olaf emphasises, is that plot is actually a product of character. I hadn't thought of this before. The idea is that the main character will be a person of a certain personality (that is, a person with particular virtues or vices) who is submerged in a particular field in life (that is, particular circumstances such as time and place) and who is driven by a desire, ambition goal or similar. From these few things, a plot can be quite readily developed. For example, if the person is wicked and lusts after a maiden and lives in times when women were easy prey through money and manipulation, then you may have a plot where the main character carries out a plan to marry and thereby control a woman he desires, despite her revulsion towards him. In his discussion, Olaf gives this example:

"Let us say that he [the antagonist] moves from love to hate... He never does so in a single movement; even a chameleon needs periods of adjustment, and it is the orderly progress of this opposing character that outlines the plot of the novel and provides an ever-increasing conflict. Going from Love to Hate he passes these road-markers: Love. Disappointment. Annoyance. Irritation. Disillusionment. Indifference. Disgust. Anger. Hate. In that order." (p 11)

The more I thought about this idea of plot emerging out of character, the more I thought what an important idea it is. One of my favourite quotes from Baha'u'llah is from Surah of Blood: "Adorn yourself with my character". This is from paragraph 5 of the surah; the full sentence reads: "Adorn yourself with My character, in such wise that should anyone treat you unjustly you would take no heed of him, nor oppose him." If we adorn ourselves with Baha'u'llah's character, then the plot follows - we will not take any notice of someone who treats us unjustly and would not move to oppose that person. That's a plot in itself. In a similar way, the writings are full of ideas of how a particular plot would emerge from a person in various situations if they were adorned with Baha'u'llah's character.

But what's even more interesting about this is what it means for our concept of teaching the faith. I was pleased to find this idea about plot emerging from character because I thought it might give me, for the first time, a means of explaining what I think teaching is, and what Baha'u'llah intended by it. It is a very powerful idea, which sweeps away in a heart beat the need for door-knocking and other methods of questionable integrity.

The point is this: Baha'u'llah tells us repeatedly to be persons of good character. How do we respond? We think to ourselves: 'Well, I'll try my best to be a good person but, in the meantime, I'll carry out teaching activities, I'll attend meetings and do my bit for the portals. If I throw in some prayer and reading on top of all that, I feel sure that my character will be as it should be. How could it not be? I am doing all the right things, aren't I?' Based on my experience, this approach does not bring about transformation of character or end in effective teaching. It does succeed in generating a lot of activity and energy and, when you're in the thick of things, you sincerely feel like you're doing something very important. But lots of activity and energy isn't what matters - what matters is character. The Guardian stated this principle in plain terms:

"Not by the force of numbers, not by the mere exposition of a set of new and noble principles, not by an organized campaign of teaching - no matter how worldwide and elaborate in its character - not even by the staunchness of our faith or the exaltation of our enthusiasm, can we ultimately hope to vindicate in the eyes of a critical and sceptical age the supreme claim of the Abha Revelation. One thing and only one thing will unfailingly and alone secure the undoubted triumph of this sacred Cause, namely, the extent to which our own inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendor of those eternal principles proclaimed by Baha'u'llah." (Shoghi Effendi: Baha'i Administration, p 66)

Why is it that character is so important? Because plot emerges from character. Our character will determine the choices we make, the people we attract, the circumstances we find ourselves in and the kind of relationships we build with others. If we adorn ourselves with Baha'u'llah's character, then the world will change around us. We are authors, just like those who write fiction. But we write the story of our lives and if we want the plot to include teaching the faith and influencing others, then we need to set up the ingredients of that future reality in our character. But if we set character aside and get involved in 'activity', thinking that that's what results in change, then we're wasting our time. No fundamental change will occur. Character and deeds are fundamental to this revelation. They may not have been so important in previous revelations, but there's no getting around them in this one:

"O son of my handmaid! Guidance hath ever been given by words, and now it is given by deeds. Every one must show forth deeds that are pure and holy, for words are the property of all alike, whereas such deeds as these belong only to Our loved ones. Strive then with heart and soul to distinguish yourselves by your deeds. In this wise We counsel you in this holy and resplendent tablet." (Persian Hidden Word 76)

There's an interesting passage in the fourth valley of the four, where Baha'u'llah states that a person can achieve a spiritual station where they will become like God: "O My Servant! Obey Me and I shall make thee like unto Myself. I say `Be,' and it is, and thou shalt say `Be,' and it shall be." (Baha'u'llah: Seven Valleys and Four Valleys, p 63) How can it be that a person can say 'Be!' and it will be? The answer is: through their character. It isn't about a person expressing or suppressing their will, thinking this or that outcome is in line with God's will; it's about the creative writing of reality through character.

What does it mean to adorn ourselves with Baha'u'llah's character? I think the essence of this idea is found in the following Hidden Word:

"O children of vainglory! For a fleeting sovereignty ye have abandoned My imperishable dominion, and have adorned yourselves with the gay livery of the world and made of it your boast. By My beauty! All will I gather beneath the one-colored covering of the dust and efface all these diverse colors save them that choose My own, and that is purging from every color." (Persian Hidden Word 74)

What's interesting here is the idea of "purging from every color". Again, this can be understood in terms of character and plot. Olaf Ruhen makes the following statement in his book on writing fiction: "There is an unbreakable bond to tie the pivotal character and the changing character together." (p 11) In other words, opposites are bound up in each other. If you have an enemy, you are tied to that enemy by your antagonism toward them. The bond is the mutual antagonism; any strong feeling towards someone is a bond that ties us to them, whether the feeling is negative or positive. And this bond is integral to the plot of our lives; our character is given over to an uncontrollable state of being and this dictates what turns our lives will take. The point about purging from every colour is becoming detached. If we work on our character so that we are not in any way affected by such feelings as love and hatred (as Baha'u'llah identifies them in the Iqan (para 213)), we become detached from them and this means they no longer determine our future. When we are free of these character traits, we become free in the real sense of the term, for we become free to plot our lives in the manner we choose. We are no longer written by our passions; instead, we control them and become creative authors of our lives.

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