Lifting the Lid 7: Plot, Character; Character, Plot

Those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning will know that the relationship between character and plot is one of my favourite subjects. The way the two run together, informing and supporting each other, is what makes brilliant writing.

In a recent post I mentioned that I had a run-in between character and plot. This was a good example of how the two are meshed together, and how changes in plot can (radically) inform changes in character.

It went like this: I am currently in the throes of the first draft of Coals of Fire. I have my plan for how the book will pan out, I have my various characters more or less assembled, and I have sketched some story arcs to tie in with the theme of the book

My preferred style of writing is to plan in advance, but not to the extent that I know every last thing that will happen. In this respect I believe that writing a book should be just as much fun as reading it, in the same way that someone who has watched a trailer for a film will know the broad strokes and overall thematic palette, and will be aware of some of the major plot points, but will not know the fine details of how all of these tie together

The first part of Coals of Fire follows two very different characters along paths that will eventually converge. One of these is Colin Ashwood, a former officer in London’s Metropolitan police who was fired at some point for reasons which, at the time, I had not yet decided. I trusted those reasons would come out.

Colin’s life has gotten to the point where he has reached a dead-end. Not washed-up, not a raging alcoholic, but a man whose life is so unbearably, unrelentingly ordinary that he finds it hard to muster the will to get up each day.

The tragedy is that Colin has a brilliant mind, and an almost superhuman gift for observation. He should be the next Sherlock Holmes, but something is holding him back (again, I wasn’t sure what). The only bright spot in his life is his night job as a security guard in a central London office (I couldn’t say exactly why at the time, but it was comng).

Colin’s story starts (after a preliminary plot point) with him at work in the office building, when it is stormed by an elite squad of mercenaries looking for something (haven’t exactly decided this — could be one of two things, or both). Colin finds himself in the central control room, watching the mercenaries prowling the corridors on the CCTV monitors.

Now, this is a fantastic point for a writer to be at. The question immediately arises: what does Colin do? What sort of a man is he? There is a gun in a safe behind the desk; he has spent his life in a grey well of boredom; he has all his police training behind him. What will our protagonist do?

I paused at this point, and left the story to cool. When I came back, I knew exactly what Colin would do.

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing. Not a bean. He presses the silent alarm, slides down on to the floor, and sobs his heart out.

Because Colin is a coward.

Suddenly all of the pieces fit into place. Colin was fired from the police for some incident involving cowardice, probably costing someone’s life. He couldn’t be the next Sherlock Holmes because he is afraid to strike out on his own. He loves his night job because it gives him the illusion of being brave and in control, in an environment in which, in all probability, nothing of consequence will ever happen.

Except it does. And now Colin hates himself more than ever. This is why his life is so grey — because he is spiralling into depression, self-doubt and self-loathing.

In a way it doesn’t matter now what the actual plot turns out to be — now I know that Colin’s story arc will be about overcoming fear, which I think is a pretty great journey for any character to go on.

And all thanks to a plot point that turned on a sixpence. If I’d had Colin go out and face the bad guys the story could well have been over, or Colin would have been a completely different person. But now I know what drives him — fear — I can trundle ahead merrily, knowing that the tracks are laid down.

So remember, kids: plot is character, and character is plot. Have them inform each other, and you’ll find it hard to go wrong.

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