How do you actually begin a novel - by working out the plot, or starting with a character? And which is
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
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:
b. What is your character's secret?
- 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
- 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?
c. Who does your character know?
- 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
- 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?
3 Tips for Developing Character Out of Plot
- 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?
a. Choose a character with traits that are necessary for the kind of growth you need
b. Choose a character that will surprise the reader
- 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?
c. Choose a character with a fatal flaw
- 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.
- 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
- 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