Which comes first — plot or character?

A couple of weeks ago I took part in The Big Thrill Roundtable. The Big Thrill is the online magazine of the International Thriller Writers, of which I’m an active member (got my badge and jetpack and everything). Every week, a group of authors debates a topic related to writing. My week, it was “Which comes first, plot or character?”

The discussion was great. The other authors taking part were Joseph Amiel, Charles Martin, Michael D. Urban, Allison Leotta, Jon Land, and John Hartness. We came at the topic from a few sharp angles — to spur discussion, I threw down some pointed words saying, in essence: story rules all. Of course it’s more complicated than that. If you want to follow the entire roundtable, hit the link above. But to understand how I craft my books, here’s a recap of what I said.

WHICH COMES FIRST, PLOT OR CHARACTER?

Chicken or egg?

Over the years I’ve gotten two solid pieces of advice for writing suspense:

1. Create sympathetic characters and put them in jeopardy.

Before I even sat down to write my first book, I heard this from mystery novelist Leonard Tourney. It guided the first several manuscripts I wrote. Character, character, character—that drove everything I put on the page.

The next piece of advice I got was:

2. Great characters will gain you loyal fans. But a big story will bring a big readership.

This came from Sue Fletcher, my editor at Hodder & Stoughton in London. It’s the story, stupid.

Of course it’s both. They’re intertwined. But with each book I write, I focus more intensely on the story. Plot drives everything.

As for what drives plot…

At this point, a number of the others chimed in to say they start with character, and build the plot from there. Jon Land agreed that plot drives everything — “And characters become creatures of those plots,” because “thrillers, to a great extent, are above all quest stories.” Almost all the others agreed that plot and character can’t actually be separated. Joseph Amiel agreed with my advice but said it “probably won’t win fans at a writers’ workshop.”

I replied:

I hope saying STORY MATTERS wouldn’t get me defenestrated at a writers’ workshop. At least until they put comfy mattresses below the window.

Plot vs. character is surely a false dichotomy. Plot consists of the choices characters make under ever increasing pressure. In turn, those choices reveal, define, and build character. The two can’t be separated.

But character by itself isn’t enough. That took me a long time to learn — that feisty, snarky, funny characters couldn’t pull off a book just by being feisty, snarky, and funny. If that’s all they were, I might as well have written a blog post. To make a book work, it needs to put those characters into a big, bold, compelling story.

John Hartness added: “Once we’ve built characters, then we have to torment them. And that, to me, is where the plot comes in.”

Mike Urban then said: “I don’t do outlines. I have my main character. I know his personality , his worldview , in a broad sense the theme and even how the story will end. I let the character grow organically as the story develops. The plot, too, simply unfolds as I write.”

I said:

So, Mike — You don’t have to outline? It just flows?

Hands up: Who hates Mike?

Sorry, kidding. I’m amazed and pleased for you. I have to outline, because otherwise writing becomes like fighting my way out of a knotted burlap bag. In the dark, with my hands tied.

I have learned that unless I outline, the plot skims along the surface and never reaches the depths that would make it a truly good story. (Okay, the plot flails and then sinks. But you get the idea.) I have to sit back and think, sometimes for weeks or months, about what turn of events would really test my characters. How can I ratchet up the conflict and present my hero or heroine with a challenge that will define them?

And in a thriller, I think this has to be a big, obvious, physical and moral challenge. The Quest, as Jon mentioned. That’s why I keep saying: Story is everything.

That sums up the first half of the roundtable. I’ll recap more of the discussion tomorrow.

5 responses to “Which comes first — plot or character?

  1. Thanks for that, Meg.

  2. I saw a cartoon, oh, quite a few years ago. It showed a chicken and an egg lying in bed together. The egg had a guilty look on its face, while the chicken was saying, “Did you come first? Of course you did!! You always come first, that’s why I never come at all!!!”

  3. Pingback: Which comes first — plot or character? Part II | lying for a living

  4. I used to have a teacher who would say, “You’re a human doing, not a human being.” It might be a cliche, but it’s true and goes to the heart of what you’re saying about plot and character. We might not be running up against some of the dangerous oddballs Evan and Jo routinely go up against, but we’re constantly facing *situations* and other personalities which test us. Plot (at its best) is the medium for the revelation and testing of character – just as life is the medium for the revelation and testing of our own characters.

    And I love your translation of “instinct” in Part II as “creativity honed by craft.” Very true. I think a lot of writers are scared of suggesting that there is *any* organizing principle in their work because then it sounds like there’s no freedom, that it’s just a puppet show . . . or something goofy like that. I don’t know that artifice is inimical to the messiness of life.

  5. I can’t lay my hand on the quote, though I believe it is from Edith Wharton. The gist is that fiction is “not about what the situation makes of your characters, but what your characters, being who they are, make of the situation.” Plot and character intertwined. Put different characters in the same situation and the plot would be very different. Put the same characters i a different situation, ditto. Bottom line: plot and character tru,mp beautiful wriring.

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