Discovery through Story

by Sulari Gentill

Part 3: Plot

The supremacy of characterisation over plot or plot over characters is an old and worn argument. At one end of the spectrum there are those who consider plot merely a tool by which character is developed, at the other those who hold that characters are simply generic cogs in the machinery of a plot. Some writers develop detailed plans broken down by chapter and scene; others start at the first word of a novel and just write till it’s finished. Most writers and readers exist somewhere between.

I tend not to know what the plot is or the story is or even the theme. Those things come later, for me.Michael Ondaatje

Stripped of its plot, the ‘Iliad’ is a scattering of names and biographies of ordinary soldiers: men who trip over their shields, lose their courage or miss their wives. In addition to these, there is a cast of anonymous people: the farmers, walkers, mothers, neighbours who inhabit its similes.Alice Oswald

Once a novel gets going and I know it is viable, I don’t then worry about plot or themes. These things will come in almost automatically because the characters are now pulling the story.Chinua Achebe

To me, and my writing, plot and character are symbiotic, the warp and weft which form the fabric of story. They weave in and out of each of other in a manner that makes them almost indiscernible as separate elements. The removal of one would render the other simply a bunch of threads.

In my last post I spoke of allowing character to develop through plot, of discovering a character gradually through the impact of events. In this post I intend to discuss developing a plot in a similarly organic way. However, while plot and character are often dealt with separately, the line between them is not rigid. Certainly, my own writing process does not involve addressing or even considering plot or character in isolation.

Life doesn’t have plot: life just has a flow of events. – Kate Grenville[i]

In life the individual is shaped by events, by what has happened to form and twist his/her character. Childhood trauma, bereavement, privilege, deprivation, power, isolation, luck… all factors which both move a plot and leave their mark on character. But the individual is rarely powerless or passive. As much as events influence the individual, so too does the individual influence events. At every fork the individual chooses a path and in so doing puts into play the events which will in turn influence him.

It is this reciprocal relationship between plot and character that means I can allow my protagonists to lead me through the story; that I can simply start writing and let them take me where they will. At every stage they make decisions, to act or not, to defy or obey, to love or hate, and in doing so they determine where the plot will go. A brave person, for example, will make different choices than a timid one, and those acts of bravery will lead them into different situations. He/she will react differently to danger and this lack of caution may lead to circumstances that a timorous character would avoid.

Once you have invented a character with three dimensions and a voice, you begin to realize that some of the things you’d like him to do to further your plot are things that such a person wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do.Thomas Perry

That is not to say I have no design whatsoever. I do begin with a general idea of the themes and issues I’d like to explore, and because I write historical fiction, I often have particular historical events I wish to include in the narrative. But I leave the detail of how that occurs to evolve naturally, I trust the chemistry of character and plot to work itself out into a story.

In some ways I work with scaffolding rather than proscriptive plots. In my case that scaffolding is history and mythology, but they are not the only forms of scaffolding that exist. I use the term scaffolding to mean the base truths upon which the story is built. In the Hero Trilogy, for example, I used the works of Homer and other classical texts as the truths around which the story of the Herdsmen of Ida was based. They framed my plot and gave me parameters with which to work. In Chasing Odysseus I followed part of the plot of Homer’s Odyssey quite closely, and in Trying War I brought together elements of many stories, including that of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus and the trial of Ares at the Areopagus. The Blood of Wolves wove into Virgil’s Aeneid. Thus for the first and last books of the trilogy the scaffolding was extensive. The major events had been set thousands of years before by Homer and Virgil. The plot development for those novels was about how I would entangle and disentangle my protagonists from these events while maintaining the integrity of their characters. For Trying War the scaffolding was looser and less linear. The physical path was not so rigid and where my protagonists travelled in the course of that book was determined by what their characters would naturally have done in the circumstances rather than a course set by classical texts. In all three books the personal plotlines of the Herdsmen of Ida were determined as much by their idiosyncratic responses to the mythological stories in which I’d placed them, as by the events of those stories.


In Chasing Odysseus I established a kinship with wolves for the Herdsmen of Ida. The detail was included purely on whim. When I was first writing the manuscript, my son, who was about six years old at the time, wanted me to ‘write a book about werewolves’. The tribal affiliation with wolves that I gave my protagonists was merely a nod to that request. If he’d asked me to write about vampires perhaps I would have given the Herdsmen a kinship to bats! This character detail however became increasingly important as the series evolved, influencing critical plot directions and bringing the trilogy to a conclusion with the mythology surrounding Roma and Romulus, the founders of Rome. If six-year-old Edmund had not made that request, if I had not included it as a quirk in the character of my protagonists, each book as well as the eventual greater story arc would probably have been very different. In this way the plot evolved in response to a facet of characterisation.

One of the great benefits of this uncharted approach is to the pacing of a novel. The writer who has not planned, experiences events with the protagonist (who also has no idea what will happen next) and discovers the story with the reader.

Although I do not consciously plan or plot, the serendipity with which threads come together leads me to suspect that there is probably a subliminal structure and organised logic to my work. What I see as my protagonists leading me through their world and story is possibly just my subconscious guiding a story it has sifted out of all that exists in my memory and my imagination, without bothering the poor beleaguered and limited conscious part of my brain. As a consequence, my seemingly spontaneous discovery of plot, my idea that I am making it up as I go, may more accurately be a gradual conscious realisation of something devised in the quiet and hidden recesses of my mind.

It may well be argued that we ‘pantsers’, we writers who just go with the story and allow our protagonists to do as they choose, might not be as unruly and unstructured in our writing as we claim. There are consequences of events on character, and influences of character on events which guide the narrative. There are threads of causality and rules of logic, however internal, at play. It may be that (aside from trying to explain our processes for Southerly) we just elect not to look too hard at what exactly is at work to produce our plots and our characters, leaving the mechanics of our processes undefined and unscrutinised. Perhaps we simply trust that part of ourselves which tells us ‘this is the way it was’.


[i] The Writing Book (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2010).

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