Organic Marketing Part Nine: Husbanding the Imagination
Writers who are serious about extending their writing into sustainable careers will seek to husband their imaginations, not exploit them. They will wish to improve and maintain the ‘heart' of their imagination, its fertility. They will learn by observing other writers that sticking to one genre or style only, or keeping to one form only, or re-issuing work based on the same tropes is not in the natural order of things, at least not if one wishes to achieve long-term success. They will therefore wish to nurture the characters and plots that arise in their imaginations to ensure the survival of the widest possible variety of stories. They will understand and encourage the interaction between their own words and those of others. They will even leave some areas of wilderness in their minds, where wild forms of fiction can flourish.
Yes, there are formulaic writers, and writers who have made a success out of niche writing and niche marketing. But in many cases they mastered these principles first.
Where they cultivate, they will always keep in mind the needs of their imagination, considering each character and each plot for what beneficial effect it might have on the work as a whole. Above all, they will realize that if they interfere with the chain of ideas (of which they are a part) they do so at their peril, for they cannot avoid disturbing a natural balance.
What is this ‘natural balance’ in terms of fiction?
Whether we like the idea or not, we do not exist in a void. When we think of an idea for a story, or a character, or an image for a poem or scene, we are not conjuring such a thing from a blank nothingness. We live, breathe, read and emote in an already burgeoning environment of such things.
The only way that writers can utilise their imaginations as well and intensively as possible is to institute some variant of ancient techniques which have either largely faded into the background in the modern tableaux or which have lost their proper names (if they ever had any). These include a carefully worked out balance between characters and plots, so that each feed the other: the plots feeding the characters directly, the characters feeding the imagination with their backgrounds (explicit or implied) and the imagination feeding the plots. A variety of both characters and plots, rotated about so that each takes what it needs out and puts what it had to contribute back, are kept uppermost always in the master author's mind, even when that mind is not his or her conscious mind. Each character and plot is considered for what beneficial effect it might have on the overall work.
If the same story with the same characters and plots is recycled year after year something peculiar happens. Tropes and clichés attack that fiction and will build up in the area until they become uncontrollable. Nature — a broad term which we can use to include aesthetic nature — abhors monoculture: any cursory inspection of successful literature will reveal a great variety. If one genre or type or style becomes too predominant, some repetitive pattern or formulaic template is sure to develop to strike down its native energy. Some — like the Hollywood executives or the television magnates or the writers of bulk romances — are able to defy this law, to date, by the application of more and more artificial and complex plots, but the tropes and clichés adapt very quickly to withstand each new complexity and to date Hollywood and the rest have managed to keep only a short jump ahead of the disease.
A glance at modern comic books will show you an industry suffering from mass tropes, clichés and complexities in the extreme -- the movie versions of comic book heroes' stories succeed, where they do, because they return to the core concepts behind these tales.
New writers will wish to husband their imagination in accordance with the principles of organic marketing. They will have to substitute the labour of their own minds for imported complexities and sophisticated templates. They will have to use their brains and cunning to save the work. If they can get their characters to go out and carve out their share of plots, then they will save themselves the work of inventing plots for them and carrying them to a forced conclusion. In other words, take the character to the plot, not the plot to the character.
Also, if they can get the characters to leave an impact upon the imagination, then this will save them the labour of inventing new things. Thus the keeping of characters on a kind of ‘limited free range’ should appeal to writers: some protagonists can be utilised in a variety of sub-genres; some can be restrained in arcs, but moved through genres or combinations of genre; and some can be guided along easily moveable channels.
The key to managing characters is an understanding of the Seven Character Archetypes. Once a writer grasps those figures, all plots fall under his or her sway — characters harvest their stories for themselves and also distribute their influence upon other characters. An established Character Archetype will clear your mind, prepare it, invigorate it, and outline its own plot, leaving it nearly ready for you to put your words in, with no more labour to you than the occasional shifting of an auxiliary character.
Is a Character Archetype another form of trope or cliché? Strangely perhaps, it is the opposite, as we will see.