Sunday, January 24, 2010

Which comes first: Character or Plot?

Although my conference is over, I learned so much that my lessons will keep on coming! I'm even skipping Sunday Funday to post one today! (Though there is a fun announcement at the end of this, so read through!)

Here's an age-old question in story writing: what's more important, character or plot? Dennis Lehane talked about this last week, and followed that simple question up by saying "Plot without character is an amusement ride. Character without plot is a painting."

And that is so true. Plot and character are linked completely. External events (plot) trigger the internal turmoil that is inherent in your characters, but without the internal turmoil, the plot wouldn't be particularly interesting. In fact, you can build an entire plot based on a great character. But how do you build an interesting character?

One way to start is to think about the room they live in and build out. Consider the contents of their kitchen, their CD player, their book shelves, closet, etc. But although these things round the character out, they don't make the character. What makes the character is their quest for what they want: love, security, fulfillment, value, approval, fairness/justice, etc.

Most of us, when we first start forming our main characters, write someone who is very close to ourselves. You might not want to admit this, but it's true. (Come on, think about your main character, especially who they were in your very first draft. How much did they have in common with you, especially in terms of wants, desires, fears, etc? Probably a lot. Even J.K. Rowling did it, and fully admitted it, with Hermione.) But you lose objectivity in your character, because you can't remove yourself from them. So gradually you write them further and further away from you.

One thing you need to be careful of, something that can make your plot bland and even cliched, is making your heroes too heroic and your villains too evil. (The latter is something I'm struggling with right now.) Because I love HP, and I've already mentioned it, and I think most people reading this blog would get the reference, I'm going to continue with that example. Voldemort is obviously evil and awful. But, there are times in the book when you feel just a little sorry for him, particularly when we see the circumstances of his orphanage. Once we see his upbringing, we understand that he's complex and multi-dimensional. Every time you write about a good character, you need to ask yourself what's bad about them. And when you write about a bad character, you need to ask yourself what's good about them.

I mention all this stuff on character because, as I said before, if you have an incredible character you can create a plot around them. Let's take this list of qualities, totally stolen from an exercise we did with Lehane (the list is from a series of questions we all had to answer, then he drew one at random. These aren't my answers, and sadly I don't have the questions, but you can figure out the questions from the answers):
  1. Passion to learn
  2. Their eyes wander when they talk to people
  3. A bit bossy
  4. Their greatest desire is to be successful
  5. Wants unwanning drive
  6. Her sister has broken her heart, and she hurt her sister as well
  7. She cheated after drinking
  8. Afraid to fail
  9. Phobia of heights
  10. Does volunteer work
  11. Addicted to alcohol, exercise, marijuna, and tea
  12. Makes mistakes when she parties and drinks too much
  13. More than anything, wants to raise enough money to help her parents retire
So when you first look at that list, it might not look like much. But the more you consider it, the more the layers of this complex person start to come apart. As a group, we created a plot involving the MC having to raise the money to help her parents, but her addictions/phobias) kept getting in her way (we had various reasons, like having to go up an elevator for a job interview and not being able to manage it, or showing up drunk/high to an interview, etc.), so ultimately she had to ask her sister for help, and in the end her parents didn't even want the help.

OK, I'll give you another exercise. Here's another list of traits. Write a short story, or just outline a plot, based on the list below. I copied the answers as they were read, so you can interupt them as you want.
  1. Most proud of his wonderous humility
  2. Quirk: lines up Sweet & Low packets
  3. Snorts, not snores, in sleep
  4. Hopes for a quick death
  5. Wants to have their novel published
  6. His girlfriend's death broke his heart
  7. He doesn't like people and they know it
  8. He is afraid of lingering death
  9. Phobia: ferris wheel
  10. Once let down someone in need
  11. Has told big lies to the person he loves the most
  12. Addicted to cheap beer
  13. Once beat up a guy in a bar
  14. Nothing would make his life near-perfect 

In other news, I'm holding my first-ever contest! You all were such great little followers last week, telling me how wonderful and helpful all my posts were, that I've decided to give away not one but TWO signed books by some amazing authors! Tune in tomorrow for the details! (Hint: You might want to start following me now, before it technically starts, to give yourself a leg-up on the competition...)


  1. Nice post, Heather. I think an adequate balance between plot and character is one of the most difficult things to achieve--and a hallmark of great writing.

    Looking forward to the contest details!

  2. excellent post, I agree with Jon Paul that it is difficult to establish a balance beteween the two, but once you master it you'll have great writing!

    Can't wait to hear the details for the contest!

  3. Lovely post. I tend to start with half-character and half-plot and flesh out both. But my novel's totally character-driven.

  4. Hey! I gave you a blog award today, check it out here


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