by Peter Rasmussen

The story Machine

Posted by Peter Rasmussen on March 6, 2007

I’ve been in correspondence with a research lab at a local university that studies all sorts of things about robotics.

They have a snake like robot that learns how to improve its slither by trial and error. Another can find it’s way through a maze. The place is full of cool gadgets.

One of there latest projects is to write software capable of constructing a narrative story. One application of this would be in interactive adventure games. At the moment this can only be done with a finite list of predetermined options.

What they are trying to do is very ambitious. Even if they don’t reach their goal it would seem to me there is an excellent opportunity here to learn about the fundamentals of story.

They are still in the process of applying for funding. They are talking to me because they need input from someone who has had practical experience writing fiction.

They sent me a paper a student put together as part of their submission. It was full of references from Aristotle and theory on story and even mathematical formula attempting to describe narrative structure. Very impressive. It was quite a lot to try and get your head around, so I chose to focus on one particular element.

The feedback I offered was this. It’s often necessary to talk about plot or character separately just to simplify things to solve a problem or develop a story.

However I believe that in a good story character and plot are inseparable. A plot that ignores character becomes arbitrary. A good plot tells you a story of what a character chooses to do when they are confronted with a given situation. What they end up doing should reveal a truth about the character and hopefully about the human condition.

Character is not embodied in superficial mannerisms it exists in what the character “Does”, in what actions they take. Character is revealed in the plot they play out in pursuit of their needs.

“To be is to do”, Socrates.
“To do is to be”, Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”, Frank Sinatra.
A quote by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


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