1. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    Trouble With a Plot in The City

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Porcupine, Aug 26, 2013.

    Hello all, it's been a long time since I was last here. One of the reasons is that I've had a new job for the last two years, and a baby for the last one year, and both things are consuming my time in a manner unconceivable. ;-)

    About a year ago (when I at least still thought about writing, occasionally), I wanted (and I know that verb is going to draw criticism, but there it is!) to write a story set in the dynamic and high-flying world of politics and finance.

    I have plenty of inside knowledge to draw upon. From blatant corruption to massive overwork to systematic fraud to mindnumbing incompetence, I believe I've seen enough to last me a lifetime. In principle, that should make for good, even very good, storytelling.

    The issue at hand, however, is two-fold.

    1. The Plot: I have absolutely no idea for an overarching plot. While everything in the world of high-flying finance is "urgent", few things are actually, genuinely, important. Nobody dies if the numbers are wrong tomorrow. If a trading system goes out of control, four senior technicians are temporarily suspended while some consultancy (or several!) looks into the matter for a few months (and eventually inevitably clear management from blame). If somebody has cheated massively, and a scandal rocks the City, all that happens is that the employing bank tries to claw back some of the 10m$ in bonuses from the cheater in a series of court suits (which is invariably boring, as both sides can afford top law firms that produce thousands of pages of legal documentation and justification that is about as effective at putting you to sleep as the most potent sleeping drugs - you could put the whole thing in two sentances, but that wouldn't be worth an astronomical fee, would it now... ). So that's one problem.

    2. The Characters: No matter what I do, every time I try to think of characters for the story (hoping that a plot may appear out of thin air if I assemble a few characters that I like), I simply come up with stereotypes. But the problem is, all the people in this business [with very few exceptions] pretty much exactly confirm the stereotypes. You have:
    - The swaggering charismatic trader with the trophy wife and the Porsche who never loses at anything (seriously) and always cheats on everyone. Everyone knows, but he also always gets away with it. The only thing he ever lost at was online poker, where he stopped playing after losing three thousand dollars.
    - The constantly out-smarted risk manager/controller who does his job by the book and is constantly confronted with new ever larger packets of work that trickle down to him due to internal politics and regulatory changes. Regularly falls for tricks pulled by the trader that keep the trader officially profitable.
    - The creaking ramshackle IT department and its grizzled veterans who remember that they had a great IT infrastructure before the merger when it all went to hell.
    - The scheming partner at the law firm/consultancy or manager at the bank who constantly plots behind the scenes to gain more power and money.
    - The choleric partner at the law firm/consultancy or manager at the bank who has reached his position purely by strong-arming and shouting.
    - The junior female associate at the law firm/consultancy who is profoundly materialistic, devoid of any recognizable emotions or morals and is mainly promoted for her looks, rather than for her performance.
    - The junior male associate at the law firm/consultancy who works all night, every night, with a complete disregard for his own health/safety or that of others. Boundlessly ambitious and proud, full of contempt for anybody who works less than 14 hours a day and/or travels 2nd class.
    - The junior workers who are constantly duped into working long hours for low wages because they are "very special people" working on "sensitive, high priority" projects that "hold the key to their future careers".
    - The foreign half-businessman/half-politician who constantly tries to do business "his" way (i.e. the "foreign" way) and keeps half-failing/half-succeeding. In the end, the only thing he does is spend millions of tax money for little obvious gain except to vastly improve his own lifestyle.
    - The corrupt journalist who will publish anything for money. Standard fees are about 5k$ for a few well-placed words in an arbitrary article, 10k$ for a purpose-written one.

    Working with stereotypical people like these has made me despise them so much that I don't feel I can write anything about them. ;-)

    Now, I know it's difficult, but... any ideas?
     
  2. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, yes -- no plot and no characters is a bit of a problem. Start with one, and the other will come. Personally, I prefer to start with characters. Stripped down to their basics, almost any character will seem cliche. But start spending time with them and developing them. Make them into real people. Give them quirks and idiosyncrasies. Give them each one of your pet peeves.

    - The swaggering charismatic trader with the trophy wife and the Porsche who never loses at anything (seriously) and always cheats on everyone. Everyone knows, but he also always gets away with it. The only thing he ever lost at was online poker, where he stopped playing after losing three thousand dollars.
    Flesh this out. Is this trophy wife his second or third wife? What happened to his first wife? How did he meet his first wife? When did he first cheat on someone (and what, exactly do you mean by "always cheats on everyone" -- do you mean in romantic relationships, he can't or won't stay faithful to one person? Or do you mean in a broader sense? Get in his head. What happened that very first time? What was it that made him cheat? What is it that he's missing? Does he fear losing? Why? What were his parents like? There must have been some time when he lost at *something* or almost did and he went to great lengths either not to lose or to somehow cover it up. What did he do?


    - The constantly out-smarted risk manager/controller who does his job by the book and is constantly confronted with new ever larger packets of work that trickle down to him due to internal politics and regulatory changes. Regularly falls for tricks pulled by the trader that keep the trader officially profitable.
    This sounds like a minor character -- it's very vague. If he's not minor, develop him much more. How did he get into his job? He must hate it if he's always outsmarted. Why does he stay?

    - The creaking ramshackle IT department and its grizzled veterans who remember that they had a great IT infrastructure before the merger when it all went to hell.
    Really? Do they care that much? IT people might leave for another job if things are this bad. IT is often a kind of different world, and a lot of the "big bosses" somewhat leave it alone because they don't understand it. What goes on here? Are they really important to the story? Maybe just pick one person and explore his or her motivations.

    - The scheming partner at the law firm/consultancy or manager at the bank who constantly plots behind the scenes to gain more power and money.
    This is, again, really vague. What is this character's purpose?

    - The choleric partner at the law firm/consultancy or manager at the bank who has reached his position purely by strong-arming and shouting.
    Same as above

    - The junior female associate at the law firm/consultancy who is profoundly materialistic, devoid of any recognizable emotions or morals and is mainly promoted for her looks, rather than for her performance.
    Oh, I'm not so sure this is the case. A junior associate is fairly low, so she needs to be promoted higher. She's probably highly capable and is willing to utilize her sex appeal to get what she wants. Does she really have no recognizable emotions, or are they just hidden? Get into her head? If she has no emotions, is she autistic? You can dig much deeper here. Her performance, at some level, has to be good. Maybe she's manipulated others into doing her work. Maybe she claims credit for others' work. Maybe she gets a client to send her work rather than the other guy who originally knew the client. She might do some immoral things, but she can't be stupid. Remember, you have to be very smart to be manipulative and deceptive.

    - The junior male associate at the law firm/consultancy who works all night, every night, with a complete disregard for his own health/safety or that of others. Boundlessly ambitious and proud, full of contempt for anybody who works less than 14 hours a day and/or travels 2nd class.
    There's much more here, too. Does this guy have a family? What is his relationship with his wife like? What was it like before he started working at the firm? He probably has some concern for the health and safety of someone -- maybe his kids, maybe his wife. He probably wants them to have everything and it makes him feel good to be able to provide it. That feeds his ego, too. But what else? Maybe he sleeps with his baby blanket at night. Maybe he only drinks Coke that's chilled to 35 degrees. Maybe he only wears gray pants. Maybe he hates the word "moist." What is unique about him?

    - The junior workers who are constantly duped into working long hours for low wages because they are "very special people" working on "sensitive, high priority" projects that "hold the key to their future careers".
    These don't seem like real characters today, only general "others" who are part of the setting.

    - The foreign half-businessman/half-politician who constantly tries to do business "his" way (i.e. the "foreign" way) and keeps half-failing/half-succeeding. In the end, the only thing he does is spend millions of tax money for little obvious gain except to vastly improve his own lifestyle.
    I'm not really sure what this means. If he's part of the plot, keep him. Otherwise, what is he adding?

    - The corrupt journalist who will publish anything for money. Standard fees are about 5k$ for a few well-placed words in an arbitrary article, 10k$ for a purpose-written one.
    Exactly what kind of journalist? How old? Already established? Won any pulitzers? How and when did he or she become corrupt? Why sell out? Something happened to this person. For it to be worth anything, he or she has to already have some kind of platform or influence. How did that happen?

    I think as you really develop these characters, a plot will present itself. As it is, you've got A LOT of characters listed. See what happens as you develop a few of them and they interact with each other. You probably won't need all of them.
     
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  3. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    Thanks for the comments, chicagoliz, however how to flesh out characters is not really my problem here (I think!). Nor am I set on using "all" of these characters, I merely painted a landscape of the the characters that seem to fill the setting where I want to set my story (based on personal experience).

    I also forgot one:
    The Lobbyist: Gets paid absurdly high fees for dubious services that allegedly further the cause of one of the higher-placed protagonists (for example the foreign businessman/politician. Is great friends with everybody above a certain level but never seems to actually do any real work.

    My primary issue is still what on earth these people are supposed to be doing, i.e. the plot (that's why I posted in the "plot" section, not the character section ;-) ). I don't want to write a story merely to depict their "normal life" and the way they interact, I see that more as the introduction to the real story. I want to write about something (moderately) exciting. But what exciting things happen in that world? [And don't say romantic relationships... ;-) I'm not out to write another version of Sex and the City... ;-) ]

    One thought I've had is to depict them all working on a deal/transaction/enterprise that is profoundly immoral and borderline criminal, and show up how thoroughly callous they all are, but what would I achieve by doing that? It's a non-story without involving some "(anti-)hero" who is directly affected by their actions and show his plight.

    Another thought is to put them all in the path of some major disaster (air plane crash, strong storm, alien invasion) but their reactions would be predictable and there would be much better characters to put in such situations who would behave in much more interesting fashion.

    My issue with the routine disasters that happen daily in finance, which would otherwise be the ideal choice for a plot, is that they are only "made" big by the psychological pressure that builds up around them. At the end of the day, all that changes after a finance disaster is a few numbers of a piece of paper. The worst things that can happen is that somebody loses their job (oh my!). I simply don't find that very interesting. Do you? [Excepting, of course, the massive consequences that can accompany a major crash like the US housing bubble of 2007-2008. In all other cases, the consequences are either never felt, or spread over such a wide base that the effects are minute.]
     
  4. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, I might. It would be pretty significant to your character, don't you think? Depending on the character's life situation, it could be hugely devastating with some severe emotional and psychological consequences. A plot doesn't have to be the solving of a murder or the attempt at preventing some sort of world-wide catastrophe. A plot could be a boy hoping to find a date for the prom. Or winning a pie-baking contest. What matters is that it is important to your character. So, to answer your question, if *you* as the author don't think it's interesting that your character loses his job, then no, a reader won't either.

    My point is that if you work on one, the other will flow. And it doesn't appear that you've worked much on either. You've got lots of outlines for potential characters, but you don't have one who is fully developed. I still say you should pick one and really get to know him or her. She or he might be able to tell you what the plot is or could be.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i suggest starting with the given that if something goes horribly wrong on the money end of things, governments can fail, leaders' heads can roll--figuratively, or literally, depending on where in the world this is taking place...

    then, since you say you have adequate insider knowledge of how finance and politics act upon each other, choose an act or series of acts that will throw a monkey wrench into the money train's gears and derail it...

    once you've got the 'how' it shouldn't be hard to choose a workable 'why' and come up with a viable answer to 'cui bono?'...
     
  6. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    A communist revolution? :)

    Actually that could be fun.
     

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