Start Here – Character or Plot


Ah yes, the age old chicken or egg debate.  Which came first?

It’s among my favorite arguments, one that people like to cite as a conundrum with no clear answer, even though there is a very clear answer that we all agree upon but are too lazy to remember. (Hint: It’s the egg, laid by a bird that is not a chicken but very close to it.  *cough* evolution *cough*).

There is a much better debate that people should find infinitely more fascinating: Which should come first, Character or Plot creation?

In genres like mystery and fantasy, character and plot often have equal importance to a reader.  Thrillers usually find plot taking precedence, while literary novels usually focus on character.  But in those books where the character and plot hold equal sway, authors are presented with a tough decision – should we create our characters first, then a plot that fits their motives/desires/vulnerabilities, or should we create our dazzling plot first, then construct characters that fit into its rising and falling beats neatly.

Some authors, I know, simply write the book without any pre-planning and then figure it out in subsequent drafts, and to them I say, “Bravo, you absolute lunatic.”  But for those of us that come up with a detailed outline first, this is a very interesting question.

And it can be simplified:

Instead of thinking about whether the character or plot should be created first, think about what you find to be most important, the What or the Why.

If you’re the kind of person who appreciates the What more than anything else, then chances are you’d probably be best served (or at least happiest) creating the plot first.  Go forward with no restrictions, and come up with the most amazing, twisty, satisfying plot that you possibly can.  Then buckle down and make sure your characters are uniquely suited to it (and just as uniquely suited to fail when trying to overcome its obstacles).  The plot premise, twists, implications, and battles are likely what you enjoy most about a book, so you should focus on those in your own fiction, and prosper!  Like calls to like.

Me?  I’m more of a Why man myself.  A Why connoisseur, if you will.  I love the Why.  I obsess over it.  If I could ditch Sara for the Why, I would (not Maisey, though.  I’d never ditch Maisey).

It’s the Why that actually helps me create the best Plot I possibly can.  My books usually start as an unformed premise or idea, after which I jot down all of my thoughts on things that should go into the story – and then I dive directly into Character creation.  Character traits, backstories, vulnerabilities/weaknesses, defining moments – all of this comes first, and it’s usually what gives me the ideas on which way the Plot should twist and turn.  Since the Why is more important here, the antagonist’s motivations at the end of the book are among the most satisfying things for me to read – I start with those to make sure they’re ironclad, believable, and even understandable (no pure good vs. evil here, only people vs. people!).

The other most satisfying thing for me is character change that actually makes sense, so understanding a character’s weakness and then creating the best plot to challenge it and force the character to grow (rather than creating a plot and trying to force a character to fit the narrative) usually feels right.  As a reader, a poignant character arc in the midst of an amazing plot is what gives me the “ahhhh” of satisfaction – the one that lingers far beyond the point where the thrill of the plot climax and inventive twist begins to fade.

But (of course, this is the part where David panders to all audiences) there is no one way to write a book.  Some of the best authors start with Plot (What), some with Character (Why), and some even flip back and forth with each book they pen (Crazy).

Even though there’s no one right answer, I still think it’s something worthwhile for each of us to think critically about.  And if you’ve only ever written one way, maybe it could be fun to try to switch it up the next time!  You never know what sort of creative ideas you might unlock.

Anyway, these are just some of the things I’m thinking about as I continue outlining my next project and start picking up (exciting!) speed.

What about you?  What do you find more important in a story, the What or the Why?  Do you create the Plot first, or the Characters?

8 comments on “Start Here – Character or Plot”

  1. Hey, cool post. Yeah, an eternal question, plot vs character. In my longer form writing I usually outline a broad overview of the story, but know certain things are subject to change. Those changes usually come about after I fleshed out my characters a bit more, as they should dictate certain things. I find it exciting to realise that some plans in the story change unexpectedly to serve the character’s motivation. I know we as humans can sometimes be inconsistent with one thing or another, but for me if a character acts against type, once you’ve established who they are, to serve a plot device, it can feel a bit hollow and ‘untrue’ unless there’s an explanation for the character’s decision – stress, lack of motivation, broken down, things like that. As long as the story’s universe doesn’t break logic too much. Unless you’re doing surreal stuff, go nuts. I know I have. But it’s a fine line sometimes. If something is too random, it can pull me out of it. Though I have been guilty of this from time to time.

    1. I agree with absolutely all of that. Especially about characters acting against their nature. If an author or showrunner has taken time to establish who a character is, them doing something unbelievable in service of the plot is the QUICKEST way to take me out of the story. Then I have to be skeptical of everything that comes afterward. Maybe my #1 on the not-to-do list.

      I’m a lot like you – I outline things, then flesh out the characters, which helps me outline more, then flesh out the characters more, etc. etc.

  2. Thanks for this post! I’ve been struggling with writing the first draft of my story and this reinvigorated me into thinking differently about how to go about it and get it done 😀

    1. Wow – so happy it helped! I’m with you, I hit tough patches of a first draft allll the time where everything just seems to drag on until you find the right spark of inspiration to blast through it.

      Happy writing!

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