Featured From the Archives: Which Comes First, Character or Plot?

Sadly, my good intentions for returning to my more prolific blogging days got derailed by what can only be described as a deluge of other obligations, both personal and work-related. But that’s not a trend I wish to continue, and I will be striving to find more time to create the snark-tinged articles you’ve all grown to know and (I hope) love. In the meantime, I present one of the last remaining archive-articles that hasn’t already resurfaced at least once. Enjoy!

Which Comes First, Character or Plot?

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 6/21/16

This is the literary equivalent of the chicken and egg scenario. Plot needs character in order for it to resonate emotionally with readers, and character without plot is really just someone standing around doing nothing. But which comes first?

There are writers in both camps who insist one or the other is the penultimate starting point for a story. But I disagree with all of them. I don’t think there is any one way to start. I firmly believe that every writer is different and will create in a way that’s unique to them. To try and constrain that creative process to a strict set of rules is futile, in my opinion. All it does is force writers who don’t naturally work that way to feel frustrated and inferior when their work fizzles and dies. Muses are fickle creatures, and prone to abandoning you when you try to force them into a rigid box. So instead of telling you that you absolutely must start with character, or plot, or even idea, I’m going to encourage you to experiment and find your own style.

But first, let’s take a look at the three different starting points, shall we? It’s hard to make an informed decision without all the facts, after all.

Character-Centric

Character-centric writers always start with a character. (You’ll see this approach a lot in fan fiction, where the only creative outlet left to the writer is character creation.) They create every last detail, from name all the way to their relationship with their great aunt Matilda’s cat who got ran over when they were four. These writers know their characters inside and out, to the point that you almost start to wonder if they’re creating a character for a novel or an imaginary best friend. Armed with pages and pages of character sheets, these writers have everything they need to get started — except a story.

Even though they’ve spent days, weeks, or months learning every minute detail of this fictitious person, they don’t have a story yet. No one wants to read those pages and pages of character notes, because they’re about as exciting as a clinical psych report to anyone but the author. You could have the coolest character in the world, but no one’s going to care unless you give them something to do. Which is why, oftentimes, you’ll notice character-centric authors struggle with plot. Since their focal point is the character, they simply don’t know how to create something interesting to fit them into, often resulting in a storyline that feels pointless, ambling around and around with no direction.

But, to their credit, character-centric authors school the rest of us when it comes to creating fully fleshed-out, believable characters. They just have to work a little harder in the plot department is all.

Plot-Centric

On the flip side of that coin is the plot-centric writer. These people start with a plot. They create every twist and turn, every multilayered goal and mini-quest in a road map of storytelling awesomeness. They know exactly how the story starts and ends, and everything in between, before they even put a word on paper. But the thing they don’t know? Their characters.

Characters are pawns to these writers, often showing up in outlines with nothing more than a placeholder name. The ins and outs of personality aren’t important unless they drive the plot. And often, that becomes a problematic downfall. Dull, cookie-cutter, two-dimensional characters are a hazard, a quagmire that too many plot-centric writers fall into. Just like the lack of plotting abilities in a character-centric story, the lack of rich characterization in a plot-centric work can destroy an otherwise amazing book.

Plot-centric writers have to pay extra attention to character development if they want any chance at resonating with readers emotionally. Plot only holds a reader’s interest so long; it’s the characters we really remember after we reach “The End.”

Idea-Centric

Outside of the character vs. plot debate is a third camp of writers — the idea-centric crowd. We (because this is the approach I use) are content to let the character and plot people duke it out over which element is more important because we go at it in a completely different way. The idea-centric writers don’t start with a character or a plot arc, they start with an idea, a concept. This can be a question — E. L. James has said she started with the question, “What would happen if you were attracted to somebody who was into the BDSM lifestyle, when you weren’t?” for her mega-hit 50 Shades of Grey. It can also be a point of inspiration — Marie Lu’s Legend series started with her curiosity over how the central relationship between Jean Valjean (a famous criminal) and Javier (a prodigious detective) in Les Miserable would translate into a more modern tale. It can even be a deeper message —The Hunger Games is actually a statement against the voyeuristic tendencies of American Television according to author Suzanne Collins.

When done well, the idea-centric approach combines the best of the other two, creating an extremely rich experience readers tend to remember long after they finish the book. But the key there is “when done well.” Idea-centric writers have to be careful that they don’t start to sound preachy, especially those with a message to impart. Character and plot can both suffer if the focus is too heavily placed on the root idea, resulting in an even bigger trainwreck than either of the two previous approaches. So while this is the method I use, I’m definitely not saying it’s perfect.

There are many people who will try to tell you their method is best. I’m not one of them. You find characters the most appealing part of a story? Go for it! Be character-centric. Just keep a watchful eye on your plot. You think plot is the all-important end-all? Great! Plot-centric it is. Have fun guiding us through your labyrinth of action. Just make sure you don’t forget about your characters along the way. And if, like me, you find plot bunnies lurking in the weirdest of places, go with it! Some of the strongest works on the market started that way. Just make sure you rein in your high horse before you reach preachy-ville.

Regardless which of the three starting points you choose, there will be things to watch out for. Each has its strength, and each has its weakness. But knowing the pitfalls ahead of time lets you avoid them before they ruin your masterpiece. The point is, there really is no right or wrong method, no matter what random people on the internet say. If it works for you, use it. If it doesn’t, look for something else that does. That’s really all there is to it.

As for our chicken and egg conundrum, you tell me — which comes first? Character, plot, or idea?