What comes first? Plot or character?

My head is dripping with story ideas. Overflowing with them. Exploding with them. I’ve never once thought “I have no idea what I’ll write after this book.” It’s always more like “New idea! New idea! Let’s quit the current WIP and start on this one.” (If you only knew how many first drafts I’ve abandoned around the 50,000 word mark.)

And if I ever get to a point in my writing where I wonder where to go next, it’s not because I’m out of ideas. No, it’s because I have an endless supply of possible paths for my character and I’m always desperately trying to make ALL THE IDEAS work. Even when they clearly don’t.

My friend China, on the other hand, has a nonstop list of characters running through her head and speaking to her throughout the day. She sees them, hears them, knows them … just not what they’re going to do yet.

When I get an idea for a book, 99 percent of the time it’s a plot idea. When China gets a book idea, it’s usually a character idea. It’s not so much that she writes character-driven stories or I write plot-driven ones. It’s just that there’s a big difference in how our stories come together. So today we thought we’d share with you the pros and cons of both.

When the plot comes first (Me)

I get story ideas everywhere: interactions I witness, things I see on TV, interesting articles I come across at work, stuff that’s happened to me in the past, etc. If it’s a good idea, but not an OMG-this-is-all-I-can-think-about idea, it goes into my file. If it’s the latter, I just have to accept the fact that I really will be thinking of nothing else for the next few weeks.

My current book was inspired by an image I saw on the Web while researching an article. I was mesmerized by this image. I saw it and suddenly my head was filled with endless “What If’s.” What if someone lived there? What if she were trapped there? What if the one thing she wanted was impossible to attain?

Who is this “she”? I don’t know. And at this point I don’t care. I’m too interested in the fact that she’s going to be solving mysteries, taking names and kicking ass. I can figure out her name, her past and her demons later. Right now, I have a story taking shape.

When I’m at this point in my mental plotting, there’s no structure to it. I don’t think in terms of inciting incidents, plot points and pinch points. I usually don’t even write the ideas down for quite some time. I just let the ideas percolate, multiply and take on a life of their own — and sometimes it rather feels like they’re taking over my life.

Showers, commutes and that hour I lie in bed before finally falling asleep are all dedicated to these events unfolding in my head. (A story-inspired soundtrack is a must for the commutes. Water Lily was a whole lot of Chuck Ragan and Brandi Carlile mixed in with some City & Colour and a little JamisonParker.) My every thought is so devoted to what’s going to happen next that it’s honestly amazing that I haven’t walked into oncoming traffic yet.

This time where the ideas flow is nothing short of amazing. I love it. I live for it. But sometimes there’s a downside to too many plot ideas. Take WL for example, I had so many plot points and twists in my head, and in my first draft I threw them ALL in there. Then I come back a month later and realize I had a confusing jumbled mess. It’s like I’d tried to write a song, but there were too many musicians and too many instruments. I had a killer drum solo queued to come in at the exact time I’d scheduled the didgeridoo, the xylophone and the sitar. Separately, they might sound pretty awesome. But all together? Your brain is confused. And your head starts to hurt. A lot.

At this point I have to replot and start cutting. I realize I can’t have this character or that subplot, and it hurts — it hurts so bad — but it has to be done. When I started revising WL, I realized that I had to cut a whole lot of stuff, including several subplots and about seven characters. It felt so wrong to be taking all these wonderful things out of my story. After all, I’d been thinking of this story for months and all of these things were a part of it. I didn’t want to kill my plot darlings!  But I did. And my story is now stronger because of it.

But just because I didn’t get to use those ideas, doesn’t mean they’re dead and gone. I can keep them in my file and use them in the next story. Perhaps they’ll sound and feel just right in that new book.

Great, now I’m thinking of the new book again. Hopefully I remember to pay attention to the crosswalks.

When the character comes first (China)

I have a large cast of characters roaming around in my head. In fact, there are so many that I keep several documents on my computer that contain character ideas. One is simply a list of names that I like. Another is names plus a few characteristics (eye color, a hobby, etc.).

But, more often than not, a character will leap from my head fully formed, like Athene springing forth from Zeus. This typically happens when my mind is relaxed and not focused on writing, i.e. when I’m driving, taking a bath, watching TV, etc.

Once a character appears in my head, I immediately grab my notebook or computer and write down everything I know: name, hair/eye color, age, hobbies/interests, dreams, goals, sexuality, job and any unusual facts (Is she being haunted? Does she have a superpower?). As I jot down facts about my MC, I start to learn things about other characters as they relate to her: family members, best friend, love interest, rival, etc., and I start making notes about those characters as well. I try to devote at least one page to every important character.

These are the characters who make it into my books (the other, half-formed ones languish in computer documents in perpetuity). And while I know, logically, that I’m creating them, that isn’t how it feels. These are fully-realized people who are telling me their stories. I don’t name them; they come to me named. They tell me what they look like, what their jobs are, what their dreams are, and it’s my responsibility to carry that to the page.

Which is, in many ways, fantastic. It’s a bit like meeting new people without ever having to leave the house, and it’s exciting to get to be the person who tells their tales. HOWEVER, there is a slight problem with this method. Because my stories develop around characters, not plot, I often have no idea what these people are DOING. Yes, I know who they are and what they want, but not what their paths are.

I have no idea of the drama, conflict or tension that they will have to tackle in order to achieve their dreams. This has always been an issue for me: I have all these people who are demanding that their stories be told, but I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE STORIES ARE. I have no plots to go along with these people.

And to make matters a tad more challenging, I’m an unrepentant pantser. I love the idea of plotting the entire story before I write, but unfortunately, that’s not how I work. These characters live in my head like real people, and it’s only by observing them that I learn their stories. So that means plotting can be tricky, but I work around that the best I can.

Once I have all the “whos” sketched out, I try to tackle the “whats”: What does the MC want? What is standing in her way? What’s the conflict? What’s the resolution? I work out as many of these answers as I can and try to outline the book as much as possible, in terms of hook, plot points, pinch points, conflict and resolution. Since I’m a pantser, this is generally not as detailed as I would like, but it does at least provide a framework.

Once I have all of that outlined, I dive in and see where the characters lead me! Naturally, they change and evolve as I go, and I find myself discovering new things about the characters with each chapter and each revision.

So for me, this is the process: I have to think about these people, what their lives are like, and then come up with a plot that both suits their circumstances and will hook a reader. And that can be tremendously hard to do. Unfortunately, I don’t have book ideas floating around in my head. I don’t see pictures on the Internet that inspire fanciful plots. All I have are these fascinating characters, and I have to create my stories around them. I think (I hope anyway!) that this results in interesting, quirky characters with strong voices. I have to work really hard to come up with believable challenges for these people, which can often mean seemingly-endless revisions. But when it works, it’s magical.

Thanks for sharing, China!

So I’m curious. What comes first for you? Plot or character? Or are you…divergent?

Photo: qisur/flickr

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5 thoughts on “What comes first? Plot or character?

  1. I’d have to say it’s plot for me too. Well, plot and theme. My stories tend to begin around an idea of a specific scene. As soon as the scene comes to me I begin asking ‘why’ it’s happening. Not what event triggered it, but what’s driving the people involved to do it? At that point, I start gently massaging the idea to see what kind of story it feels like: revenge, redemption, rescue, internal struggle, etc. Once I think I know what sort of story it is, that’s when I begin to see glimpses of whose involved and what’s truly at stake.

    Of course, the process is much more dynamic than that, but that’s what it boils down to for me. :)

    Thanks for posting!

  2. Oncoming traffic can be very dangerous for us bookish types. ;-)

    I’m a bit of a mixture. Usually, I think ‘What if this happened to someone?’ and then I flip between what would happen next and the kind of person who I see in this situation. So, my plot and lead characters evolve somewhat simultaneously.

  3. I love that you’re both a little bit different in how your books come together! It’s so interesting to me to see how other writers craft stories when all I know is my own plot-focused ways.

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