Sunday, August 15, 2010

What came first? The Plot or the Character?

Christy here, and as I begin a new story, start a new journey, excitement builds with the potential of what could be... This new story developed while I was writing a different story. It's a development of two secondary characters. However, their plot and their character changes the more I think about them.

In considering the development of a story, I wonder what develops first... Is it your person who carries the story or is it a remarkable and exciting story in which the character follows?

I've heard of stories that are "plot-driven" and those that are "character-driven." Aren't most stories in literature character-driven?  Many mainstream works may be plot driven.

I'm no expert, I just know I have a story to tell and there is a certain way I go about it. Yet, the ways I've accomplished a story in the past, were not the best. Today, I'm all about completing a story of high quality and high character in a shorter span of time. So, there will be more planning early on and that planning includes a lot of thought about the character and the plot.

When an idea for a story arises, it is usually out of something I've read, heard about, or witnessed. I could be listening to a song and my mind begins to wander. I begin to "see" scenes. With excitement, I watch the story expand from one incident to another. I begin to ask myself what could happen next. If that happened, how would that affect the situation? How would that effect the characters involved?

This is a natural lead into identifying with the characters in the story. Where have your characters been? How will this occurrence in this particular scene affect them? What will they do next?

In order to know what the characters will do, I need to know my characters. I will form the person on paper. Some people like to use a picture of someone well known, or simply someone out of a magazine. Some writers may draw off someone they know. Personally, I do not like to use the image of someone I know. If I used an image of someone I know, I'm usually ruined. The real person will never live up to the character I'm forming in my mind. I will, however, take a person's qualities, sometimes their mannerisms, and apply them to the character in my mind.

To fully know the character, I think it's wise to know everything about them, even the small, idiosyncrasies. You'd be amazed at how useful it is to a story to know if your character likes ice cream or not or if he's allergic to peanuts. Any birthmarks? What were their parents like?

Knowing the character's childhood will help you to see them as the person they became. Flaws and all.

As this story builds in my mind, I must put it on paper. At this point, I am not ready to write the story, however, I will put my ideas down. What comes next will be the outline of the story, or a long synopsis. I will write the story as quickly as I can to the end. This is my form of plotting. The synopsis will probably break down into more detail, eventually, an outline, which will allow me to see the goal of each scene.

In the end, you must write the story in the way that works for you. This opinion is only mine and only one opinion of many. I'd love to read about your opinion.

What comes first for you? Do you dream of the character first, or is it the plot?


  1. Hi Christy:

    This is a favorite topic of mine. I enjoyed your take on the problem and it got me thinking early this morning. :)

    I see three types of novels: ‘Character-driven’, ‘plot-driven’, and ‘situation-driven’. How you start with the novel probably depends on what type of novel you are going to write.

    Consider “Murder on the Oriental Express” -- this novel is plot-driven. The whole purpose is to guess who ‘did it’. This is also often the case with Romantic Suspense romances. In these novels the characters must serve the needs of the plot. I have no doubt that “Murder on the Oriental Express” would have worked just as well with 12 different suspects as long as the character mix meet the needs of the plot.

    In many romances the enjoyment is not in discovering the plot – we almost always know how it will end – so what the reader wants to see is the process of the hero and heroine falling in love. To make this scenario work, the author really has to know the characters inside and out or the story will seem hollow.

    In some novels the situation drives the story. These stories are best recognized because they usually could be made into three act plays with little scenery changes. In these stories all the characters have to deal with a given situation and how each deals with it provides the major interest. In “Winter’s End” by Ruth Logan Herne all the characters have to deal with the death of a major character who is under hospice care. Disaster movies are often like this: for example the movie “Apollo 13”. This is a hybrid approach in that the ‘situation’ calls for the right mix of specific character types to produce the outcome the author wants to achieve and yet characters play a key role in the success of this type of story.

    I believe there is not one best way to plan the novel. I think the approach depends on the type of book being written. I think some authors run into trouble when they apply the wrong technique to a given approach. Perhaps they have just taken a “Character Development” workshop and are determined to use the character approach on a novel that depends on plot. This will create frustration and hinder success.

    Think like a general. In planning the battle use a plan that takes best advantage of the landscape and the nature of the enemy.

    I think flexibility is the key to creative success. But all this is just my opinion.


  2. Plot-driven! Definitely!! But, that doesn't take away the need for character developement. I've found this out the hard way.

    Your cheering section is gearing up for this new story, Christy. Go for it!!!

  3. So far, I've gotten the main idea of the book, but with very litle else. Then I begin to think about my characters. I complete a character worksheet on each one, so that I know them extremely well. Then the "panster" aspect kicks in and I start writing.

    I tried my current WIP by using Randy's Snowflake Method. I filled it out completely. I've written 130 pages and haven't looked at the Snowflake method once since I started writing. I'm a pantster and probably always will be.

  4. Interesting discussion!

    Vince, I'd say you're ready to give your own workshop. I like your ideas and examples. And, I've never considered that when I've had problems with a story, I may need to change the way I'm approaching it. It may not be the character, but the plot itself, or vice-versa.

    Thanks Dianna! Hurry up and finish the one you're working on!!!Revise, revise, revise!

    Edwina, did the snowflake help you or no? I'm getting the feeling it didn't. I think the snowflake is very helpful, but can be tedious. however, you basically have a proposal when you finish it. I may give it another go on this one I just started. I did try it about a year or so ago on the one I just finished. I didn't have the patience for it at that time.

  5. I usually start with an idea of "what if?" Then I add characters and just start writing.

    One of manuscripts started with the idea of---what if there were three friends, 2 guys, one girl, the guy and one of the girls start dating and the heroine realizes she really loves the guy and now has to get him away. But that only lasted a couple of chapters and I rewrote with the same idea, but the heroine has to deal with how the relationship changes between them once the friends start dating. Then I brought a brand-new guy in for the heroine.

    The manuscript I'm working on now was born with the idea of what if Britney Spears found God? That was all I had.

    I know I write a novel the hard way. But it seems like the only way that works for me. Now, that it. I think, like Vince said, we need to take different approaches. Look at things from different angles.

  6. Great post, Christy! I'm glad you're finished and moving on to a new story. There's nothing more fun! :) (And congrats on finishing the other one!!)

    I've started in different ways. Usually, it's a what-if. Then I choose characters who'll oppose each other well.

    My next release, A Family for Faith (April 2011), started with a sweet scene I saw on an airplane while flying home from RWA last year. A dad was trying to put a bow in his young daughter's hair, and he just couldn't get it right. Yet he kept trying. I just knew I had to write a story about a single dad with a daughter who was reaching an age where she needed a mom. So here's this widowed dad with a 12-year old daughter who really needs a mom. Who should I pair him with? How about a single mom who's son was in trouble and chose to live with his dad? So she feels like a failure as a mother.

    I guess I kind of work in all directions. Idea, to characters, then back to idea to tweak it. I actually bought Randy's Snowflake program and used it on this book. It really helped me write with more unity. I also read and used The Moral Premise to help me focus. I think both helped me keep from being episodic (which I've done in the past).