Characterless story

Can there be such a thing as a characterless story?

I read a piece in a “best stories” anthology once mentioning an old hermit who died — he was only mentioned casually, as I recall, and really no more than a MacGuffin — and the story was about his semi-rural property being reclaimed by nature because of his absence. The events were given in inevitable sequence, from the growing of weeds to the emergence of insects not seen for years. Wild animals returned. The house decayed. And so forth. There really was no character in the story. No conventional character anyway.

I suppose that one could stretch the definition to say that nature was the character. But it really seems to me that characters were not needed for the story. I think all sorts of stories take place all around us that don’t feature human involvement and may not even have animals that might be considered characters. Where I live, for millennia before Europeans arrived, there was a battle between the encroaching forests from the east and the trackless prairie grasslands from the west. It was an epic battle (only ended by the axe and steel plow). There’s a story, and I’ve read about it in fascinating detail.

Granted, most conventional readers would not be interested in a story that did not involve human characters. Fine. But does that mean that a worthy story must include human characters?

I’m trying to imagine a story in which human characters are almost superfluous to the tale. They would be no more than window dressing, no more than another prop; the story would stand strong and tall without the need of human support. I think it could be done. I think Borges probably did something along these lines.

I read a non-fiction book called The Biography of a Tree by James Jackson. It told of the complete life of a white oak tree from the acorn first falling on the ground to two hundred years later when the mighty oak that had grown from it finally fell to the ground too. While this was nonfiction, it told a complete, compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end. It was a story without human characters at all. (I think at some point he described a hunter leaning against the tree.) In fact, I’m sure Jackson combined observations he made about many white oak trees to come up with the story of one, so in this sense, his story was fiction as well.

Can you think of anything like this?

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2 Comments on “Characterless story”

  1. Yeah I am thinking about a similar idea recently. I think a good example is Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    There are characters in it, and they contribute to the flow of the film, but how much do they really contribute to the story? The main story is man is given a boost by ET, man then reaches the moon, then man pursues the next checkpoint and the ending happens. It is awe inspiring because of the combination of a powerful idea that fascinates humans – ET – and transcendental music and imagery. I reckon so anyway.

    Did you find any other examples?

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I think that as long as there is any sort of personification, explicit or otherwise, there is potential for a story. Whether it is a good one is up to the reader but it is there; people can either choose to attach themselves to the object or being or attach their memories and experiences to it or the personifications. In a way the author can be a character although most stories don’t make that super evident because of a narrator, character or other storytelling element. Us as readers are characters, although not in the story maybe but in our own world, creating meaning out of words on paper or screen. Short answer, yes. Long answer, no.

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