Character is plot, plot is character

Helga’s Post # 68:  Much has been written during the last several posts about ‘Outlining’. This is, after all, the main agenda item for the 5 writers upcoming meeting next week. For each of us to come equipped with outlines for a spanking-new novel.

All good and useful stuff. What hasn’t graced the pages of this blog is the topic of what comes PRIOR to drafting our respective outlines. And that is, how to find and then commit to a story. What genre? What topic within that genre? Does the novel take place in the present, or the past? Where does it play out? Who are the main characters, and what motivates them? And a multitude of other questions and their sub-questions, and the sub-sub-questions, and so on and so forth.

With that formidable task in mind, I thought it would be fun to play the mind game of finding a topic for our next novel. As good a place as any is to scan the headlines of newsworthy stories and then let the mind loose with the proverbial ‘What if?’

So, without any further ado, here are some reported news clips and stories that caught my eye. All from the last few days. No geographical or other restrictions. I am adding a ‘What if’ just to play out how the story could become a plot. Feel free to use them in your own writing.

boatfullblog_Alt_Antarcticasunken boat

Image courtesy: boatfullblog

How do you find a Ghost Ship? Out in the endless grey of the Atlantic Ocean, a vessel drifts alone. The only sound in the dining room is the wind. The only smell in the galley is rust. The cabins that once held 100 passengers lie empty; there’s not a soul aboard. The only living beings are disease-ridden cannibal rats. Along the bow, a row of drip-stained letters spells its name: Lyubov Orlova. How can a 100-m long cruise ship just disappear?… and how can you locate it again? Right now, a huge object worth a million dollars is somewhere in the ocean – and according to the law of the sea, the salvage bounty could be yours if you can find it.

‘What if’: Our protagonist comes upon the ship while sailing. He calls the coast guard. They will send one of their vessels. But instead, a private ship approaches through the fog. Our hero and his wife are hi-jacked, their sailboat sunk. What can they do to stay alive?…

Fast Food, Fat Profits: One out of every three Americans is obese. One in three are expected to have diabetes by 2050. How did the situation get so out of hand? What changed from ‘we eat to live’ to ‘we live to eat’? What caused government to pay farmers NOT to grow certain foods? Bribes are routinely being paid to members of Congress, lobbying them heavily.


Image courtesy:

‘What if’ our protagonist, volunteering at her son’s school cafeteria, is shocked that the kids’ food  is pre-packaged, laced with sugar and salt and chemicals she never heard of. She’d expected food cooked from scratch. She starts lobbying the government. Why are you feeding our children this garbage? You are perpetuating a culture of junk food that is literally making kids sick. And then the threats come, of course….

Fool’s Gold: With global investments delivering little returns, the eyes of many investors have turned to the old favourite. But the new gold rush has come with a big rise in scams and confidence tricks. They now represent a major threat for companies and individuals and many of them take place in Africa. Ghana, the second-largest producer of gold on the continent, is now home to a large network of gold fraudsters. Investors have lost millions at their hands.

‘What if’: Our protagonist, an ambitious investigative journalist, digs into the story. Her career will take off like a rocket if she can name, shame and jail the crooks that are duping foreign investors. What she learns is that those crooks are not in Ghana, but sit high up in the ivory towers of New York and L.A. And they are not just driving around in their Ferraris, waiting to be exposed by our protagonista ….

Magic and Murder: The killing of so-called child witches is a practice that continues in the African republic of Benin. While murder is of course illegal in the country, making the allegations of witchcraft that lead to the deaths of children is not. The belief in sorcery is all pervasive and often seen as fundamental to the country’s heritage and national identity.

‘What if’: Our protagonist can’t have children. She and her husband decide to adopt and travel to Africa when a child becomes available. They had hoped to return to Canada with their new child. Instead, they are ensnared in a case of sorcery-related infanticide, and fingers of blame are pointing at our couple. Benin still has the death penalty. The method of execution is beheading….

Colombia’s Gold Rush: Gold fever is sweeping across South America. Nowhere is it more lethal than in Colombia, where the gold rush has become a new axle in Colombia’s civil war.

‘What if’ our protagonist is working for one of these mining companies, in the comfort of a Western office. When reports keep arriving of the unrest he wants to see for himself and arranges an assignment to the mine. What he finds in Colombia is unlike any scandal, intimidation and violence he’s ever heard of, read of, or seen on TV. He has no choice but get involved. But he hadn’t counted on how far the owners of the mines will go to defend their profits….

The Calderon Dynasty and FBI undercover ‘stings’: Catching politicians red-handed: Calling public corruption its ‘number one criminal priority,’ the bureau’s tactics are sometimes controversial. Bribe money has been handled by politicians in which political favors are peddled for hard cash. But in each instance, undercover FBI agents have supplied the money and the recipients — all public officials — have been caught in carefully orchestrated “sting” operations.

‘What if’: Our protagonist, in love with a woman who likes the good life that he can’t afford, yields to the temptation and accepts a bribe. Then he finds out the love of his life is cheating on him behind his back. Will he use his bribe to take revenge on her and her lover, who happens to be a famous politician?…

World’s 85 Richest People: They own as much as half the world’s population, according tB9tBUKto a recent report by Oxfam. The world’s elite have rigged laws in their own favour undermining democracy and creating a chasm of inequality across the globe. Many of these 85 world’s most powerful are gathering for the World Economic Forum at the picturesque resort of Davos, Switzerland.

‘What if’: Our protagonist is a member of a revolutionary underground group intent to expose the economic and political power of this elite. Not only expose. They are committed to take whatever action is necessary to level the playing field. Including blackmail, kidnapping and worse. With that in mind, our protagonist has managed to start an affair with the daughter of one of the 85 richest men. But he hadn’t counted on falling in love…

These are just a few crazy ideas. There is so much more that’s happening every day in real life that can be mined for fiction. In the end however it all comes back to this: regardless of the cleverness, cause, or evil of the plot, we have got to nail it with our characters. And make sure that their opposition or enemies are equally strong, clever and interesting to make it really hard for our heroes. Ray Bradbury, author of ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ puts it very well:

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

So simple, isn’t it?

I wished!

So what are some of YOUR methods that make you decide on a plot idea? Or do you have your protagonist worked out in your head and are looking for a plot to deploy him or her?

7 thoughts on “Character is plot, plot is character

    • Thanks for encouraging me, JM. I have not yet decided. I am leaning more now to a ‘theme’, like a story around loyalty or betrayal, and then chose a context. So many ways to plan a novel.

  1. Helga, some great ideas here. You have a thriller-writer’s eye for a story! Also, I think you’re reading the same news stories I am … two of these had been clipped for my idea file already! I didn’t know about the ghost ship story though — that is fantastic. So many directions you could take with it — in different genres. Thanks for starting my sluggish brain working …

    • Thanks, Silk. Yes, there is enough out there in real events to keep us busy for the rest of our lives. We should compare notes and do some brainstorming over a bottle of Seven Zins late into the night.

  2. So who am I to disagree with Ray Bradbury, but I like your title more than his quote. I think of stories, plots, and then invent the characters I need to tell them. Then they influence the story, somewhat, but for me, plot comes first.

    • I like my title too and wished I could claim to have penned it. But the credit goes to F.Scott Fitzgerald. In terms of your preference, whatever works for you, plot first, characters first, doesn’t matter. They are joined by a symbiotic relationship. Thanks for commenting!

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