Hi Gang. Craig with you again, and I learned a new word. (Not that I’m likely to remember it at my age, but writing it down helps.) I’m sharing it here, because it’s also an obscure kind of story structure. I can see that it has merit under some circumstances.
The word is picaresque. It basically means a kind of story that deals with episodic adventures of a usually roguish protagonist. They usually feature a character from the lower class. In one of these novels, there isn’t much character development, and a fairly shallow plot. The fun comes from the charismatic protagonist and the adventures involved.
Sounds pretty lousy, am I right? That was my first blush too, but I did a little bit more digging. Most of the examples get around to referring to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That one sold a few copies.
Let’s pick at those rules a bit. A string of adventures typically means they’re supposed to be fun, but they could be grim. Lack of a character arc does not mean you have a flat and uninteresting character. It means the character is already developed and interesting from the get-go. Maybe read that last part again to let it sink in.
Let’s pick at the character, too. Whenever I see the word “usually” it’s a green light to break the rules. As we get deeper into this, my examples are about people on lower rungs of the ladder. They live in a world where there are people above them who hold a lot of power. Some random ideas of my own might be a freed gladiator, a military sergeant, a social rights campaigner, a biker, even a pool hustler.
There are some similarities to what I wrote about the ongoing series a few months ago. You can review that post here. Those don’t have a massive character arc either, but for a different reason. If you want the series to continue, you need a recurring character that readers will be familiar with.
When I first learned about these, my mind went specifically to road films. Let’s consider National Lampoon’s Vacation. Clark W. Griswold walks into the story exactly the same as he is at the end. He wants to take his family on a nice vacation to a place called Wally World. The whole story is about the journey and not the destination. It’s a sequence of adventures that occur along the way. Subsequent Vacation films work much the same way.
These don’t have to be comedy by anyone’s rules, it’s just an option. These could be any number of wagon train type tales, Mad Max style post-apocalyptic stories, or even a collection of pirate adventures.
If you think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark fits the mold. Indiana Jones is the roguish character and he doesn’t have much development over the course of the story. He’s chasing a McGuffin, but I never saw where that was denied as part of a picaresque story line. Individual bits included South America, the university, Tibet, Egypt, the Mediterranean, and a lonely island somewhere.
For me, I like a good character arc and some growth along the way. I think a decent plot helps. I can tell from my recent research and some projects I’ve worked on in the last few years, that it isn’t absolutely necessary. However, abandon these principles at your peril. (And have a good plan.)
The picaresque story sounds like graduate level stuff to me, but I can acknowledge some that worked well. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely go that direction. (My Lanternfish books have many of the earmarks, though.) What about you? Is this a style of novel you might try one day? Do you have your own Odyssey or Grapes of Wrath somewhere waiting to be written? Have you written one? Tell me about it in the comments.