Character or Plot (Chicken or Egg). Authors, what comes first for you?

As I begin to stretch my writing muscles, I have done some reading about writing to prepare (procrastinate). I thought maybe I should start with a short story or a shorter work before I dive back into my epic novel. As I did this, I went back and read from a book I purchased back about 20 years ago when I started to write down what the voices in my head were telling me. It’s called, How to Write & Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier with Frances Spatz Leighton.

The book was written nearly 24 years ago, so I wanted to skim through it and see if there was any information that is still relevant that can help me light my writing fire. A chapter that drew me previously is the 3rd one in the book titled, Do I Start With the Characters or the Plot? In my infinite wisdom, I asked myself this question. My answer was…yes…depending on the type of writing I’m doing.

It’s All About That Plot

For some of my books, namely Extra Innings, with a plot that revolves around time travel and Blood Orange, where the plot is centered on a big event, I had the story mapped out long before I even thought of the characters. The characters were crafted to fit the story instead of the other way around.

I find this to be the case with many of my standalone books and short stories. I have a beginning, middle and end in mind and the characters are fit into the plot as needed with the necessary traits to move the story forward.

What about you? Do you write stories based on an established plot and then fill in with appropriate characters?

I tend to think of “plot first” writing as similar to how movie’s are crafted. Very often the plot is solidified and then the characters are shaped based on what actors they can pull in.

Character is King

When you write a series, you need to have characters that endure over the long haul. Whether it’s James Patterson with his Alex Cross books or Lee Child with the many Jack Reacher books, we quickly become familiar with a character and then we go on various journeys with the author as they put those characters and their known talents and traits in various plot situations. One of my favorite authors that I believe excels at this is Jonathan Kellerman with his Alex Delaware series. Over some 25 years and countless books, Kellerman has gradually evolved his characters, Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis while putting them in numerous different crime solving scenarios.

This is a difficult technique to master. I have tried to do it with my Frank Rozzani detective series and I find it difficult to throttle back the character development so that the backstory, motivation and fears of the characters endure over several books. I’m on book six and I have the rapport between my main characters, Frank Rozzani and Clifford “Jonesy” Jones in a regular rhythm, but finding unique outside forces to challenge them in the context of a single book and over a series is a difficult balancing act.

What about those of you that have written a series or multiple stories with the same characters? Do you find this virtual duality of timelines (book plot vs. long-haul character development) difficult?

What Does Oscar Collier Recommend?

Well, good old Oscar is kind of wishy-washy on this. He cites famous authors like Stephen King as saying it’s all about plot. For King’s genre, this might be true, but when you look at his Gunslinger series, it appears that he spent a lot of time on the growth of his characters while he slowly moved the plot along through seven books (I hated the ending of the last one, if anyone cares).

Collier spends a couple of paragraphs of the entire chapter talking about how plot might be more important and then spends the bulk of the chapter on what makes a good character. He really doesn’t weigh in on which is more important as a starting place.

I think there is good reason for this. There isn’t a hard and fast formula. Some books are character rich and plot sparse, like King’s Gunslinger series (in my opinion). Others are plot rich and character poor like many short stories that we read. A few book hit that balance or sweet spot when it comes to these two important components. One of my favorites, To Kill a Mockingbird, is an example I would point to that has rich characters and a plot that keeps you engaged. There are many others as well.

So, What About You?

So, once again, I’ve thrown my opinions at you, but I’m interested in yours. Where do you start? Do you plot out your story first? Do you start with characters that you’ve carefully crafted and build the story around them? Do you take a hybrid approach? Let me know. Let’s have a discussion

9 thoughts on “Character or Plot (Chicken or Egg). Authors, what comes first for you?

  1. An insightful post. Thank you, Don.
    Someone — I forget who — once said: “Character is story”. Years ago, I started writing a novel with a strong plot but thin characters. The story wasn’t strong.
    I decided to start again and develop the characters, but that slowed down the plot a lot. So now I’m trying to develop my characters more fully, but not lose the plot – so to speak.
    Happy new year to you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wonderful post, Don. You might imagine, I’ve done a bit of everything. Truth be told, I usually get a vignette first. Some dumb scene that has merit if I dwell on it. I put these in my notes app. If they grow, they get a storyboard. I’d say more often than not, I have characters before plot. In fact, I have some awesome characters right now in search of a plot. (Science Fiction tale) I wrote a few months back about my ongoing series over at Story Empire. In that series, character growth is almost detrimental to the stories. My MC is a paranormal superhero of sorts and she needs to be pretty much the same for her new stories. I have another one to post in a couple of months where character development is not part of those type stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Craig, I thought of you when I wrote this. Your characters from the Lanternfish and The Hat series are so much fun. I like how you developed the back story for Serang in her own standalone book. And, of course, Lisa Burton is a standout character on her own. I tend to vary how I approach things as well. Thanks for chiming in.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is always such an interesting question, Don. For me, it has come both ways. I have just gotten a character name for the start of a story, then I have to wait for them to tell me what the story is about. Then, other times, I’ve gotten the story and had to wait for the character. It’s a fascinating process either way. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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