What Comes First - Characters or Plot?

by Marg McAlister

 

How do you actually begin a novel - by working out the plot, or starting with a character? And which is best?

The answer is probably pretty much what you expected: no one method is "best". In fact, many authors have begun their first novel by working from a plot idea, then switched to starting with a character for their second. Here, we'll look at the pros and cons of both methods.

Starting With Plot

FOR: You know where the story is going and what all characters have to do next. You don't have to sit there wondering how on earth your character is going to get out of the pickle you've put him in - because you planned all that in Week 1. Even if you have to make some changes, you know your story well enough to compensate.

AGAINST: A highly structured plot can become sterile and flat. Characters are too 'locked in' and fail to excite the author, let alone the reader. Because 'plot is all', your characters never really come to life. They go through the motions - but you're all too conscious that you're a puppet master. Pinocchio ain't got nuthin' on YOUR wooden characters. Gloom, gloom.

Starting With A Character

FOR: You know your character so well that motivation is never an issue. The plot is never implausible. All action is driven by the character's needs, wants and responses. Conflict works well because you know the secondary characters well too.

AGAINST: Your character never realizes his/her potential because the plot is too slight. The stakes aren't high enough; the outcome is predictable; the storyline worn.

What To Do?

Either method can work - or either method can be a disaster. Start with whatever gets your creative juices flowing, then weave plot and character together as you write.

How to Weave Plot and Character

Not many aspiring novelists start a novel by sitting down at the computer with absolutely NO idea of where to start. ("Oh, I think I'll write a novel today! Now let's see... what can I write about?")

Most writers have at least a vague sense of where they're going. They may: 

  • have a vivid image of a character in mind
  • be able to imagine a character in a certain situation that requires decisions and action
  • have a general theme in mind
  • have a definite beginning, middle and end planned
  • have a vague idea based on a movie plot or an actor or a news item or a current affairs guest

... and so it goes on! Very, very few people start with a completely blank slate. So, given that you have either some idea of the plot, or some idea of the character, where do you go next?

3 Tips for Developing Plot Out of Character

a. What does your character DO?

You can build a plot from where your character is now, in his/her life or career. Some examples: 

  • If your character is a mother: what could threaten to turn her life upside down? What is her strongest drive? What does she want from life? What is important to her? What would make her risk everything she holds dear?
  • If your character is a corporate high flyer: What is important to her? What could bring her down? Who might go down with her? What does she have to lose? How could you raise the stakes?
  • If your character is a doctor: What might he see or do in the course of his work that could have an impact on his life? What kind of doctor is he? Who might be plotting against him? Who might he want to save, and how?

b. What is your character's secret? 
  • Does she have a secret life - e.g. teacher by day, psychic hotline contact by night? Does she have a secret baby in her past... or a secret lover?
  • Does he have a serious crime in his past that is about to catch up with him? What is it? Could it mean doing time? Was the character framed? Did he let someone else take the rap? Might someone be looking for revenge?
  • Does she have a secret yearning? Has she always wanted to be someone else or do something else? What happens if she shocks everyone by acting on her secret yearning?

c. Who does your character know?  

Some examples: 

  • An old school friend - once a 'best friend', now on a slippery slope in life - in trouble, and involving our lead character.
  • A workmate who asks the character to cover for him. A lie grows out of all proportion and leads to serious repercussions. The character is caught up by events and can't stop them.
  • A corrupt politician or police officer who mistakenly sees the character as powerless and a good 'fall guy'. What happens?

3 Tips for Developing Character Out of Plot 

a. Choose a character with traits that are necessary for the kind of growth you need 

  • If your plot requires a character who will develop 'courage under fire', and show great character growth - then choose that character carefully. Think about the *qualities* your character needs rather than worrying about looks. What particular skills/traits will he or she need to have?

b. Choose a character that will surprise the reader 
  • If you have a screwball character in mind - or perhaps a mild-mannered desk jockey - think about how their lives are about to change, and how their reactions might surprise the reader. Perhaps link their actions to a secret in their past, a secret threat, or a secret yearning.

c. Choose a character with a fatal flaw 
  • Your plot demands swift and decisive action. The stakes are high; many lives will be lost or a country/city faces ruin. You need a character with a fatal flaw so that near the climax of the story, all appears lost. What is that flaw? At what stage of the story will the revelation of this flaw have the most impact?
  • Which particular fatal flaw will work best with the kind of plot you've created? A gambling addiction? An inability to admit he's wrong? A weakness for beautiful women?  

These are just a few tips. A couple of hours brainstorming will give you pages of ideas and fend off the dreaded writer's block.

Whether you start with a character or start with a plot, you need to have vivid, strong characters or all your hard work will be for nothing. I'll leave you with a few words from New York literary agent Don Maass about the importance of strong characters (from his book Writing the Breakout Novel):

"What do folks remember most about a novel? I have asked this question many times, of all different kinds of people. Your answer is probably the same as that of most readers: the characters. Great characters are the key to great fiction. A high-octane plot is nothing without credible, larger-than-life, highly developed enactors to make it meaningful.... Hot plot devices may propel a protagonist into action, even danger, but how involving is that when the action taken is what anybody would do?

"Indeed, it is a common fault of beginning thriller writers to slam an Everyman, your average Joe, into the middle of something big and terrible. Such stories usually feel lackluster because the main character is lackluster. A plot is just a plot. It is the actions of a person that makes it memorable or not. Great characters rise to the challenge of great events."

copyright Marg McAlister 2011

 

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