Which comes first — plot or character? Part II

Yesterday’s post — Which comes first — plot or character? — recapped the first half of the thriller writers’ roundtable I joined on The Big Thrill. Today I’ll tackle the second half.

Basically, in the plot vs. character wrestling match, I threw down on the side of plot. I said: story is everything. But of course it’s not that simple. Story is what the characters do.

And on The Big Thrill, I said:

I mentioned this roundtable on Facebook,* and a reader commented: “If it’s a series it’ll always be character, plot, more characters, in that order.”

He’s right.

I’ve been slinging a sledgehammer for story here, but I write two series that are heavily character-based. The Evan Delaney series features five novels so far. But before any were published I scribbled at least three half-baked books featuring Evan. She was all I had: a smart-mouthed journalist from Santa Barbara. I kept throwing her into stories until I wrote one that worked, CHINA LAKE. And I sold the Jo Beckett series to my editor with one line: It’s about a forensic psychiatrist who performs psychological autopsies for the cops — she’s a deadshrinker.

The key is to come up with gripping stories that test these characters to the limit every time.

And here’s the flip side. My newest novel is a stand alone, RANSOM RIVER. This book, I sold on the plot: A juror on a murder trial finds herself fighting for her life when gunmen attack the courthouse. Then she discovers that the attack is connected to an old unsolved case, and bringing the truth to light might destroy her. (Of course it might. It’s a thriller.)

And my editor said: This juror has to be really compelling, because everything depends on her.

Character development became my crucial work. It took months, until a full-blown heroine could carry the book — Rory Mackenzie.

If readers are going to accompany your characters on their quest, those characters had better be worthy.

Jon Land then talked about the writing process. His is to “fly by the seat of mine, and my characters’, pants instead of laying everything out in advance.” He quoted Jerry Garcia: “ ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.’ What we seem to be saying with regards to plot and/vs. character is very similar–our destinations being pretty much the same. But our journeys, the road that gets us there, are all different. For me, outlining robs the story of spontaneity, of having the confidence to let your characters figure out what’s going on for you. If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, then the reader can’t possibly.”

Others concurred. I said:

You guys who fly so successfully by the seat of your pants — I bet you have an inner storytelling compass that’s well-calibrated. Even when it feels like you’re making it up on the spot, it’s my guess that instinct (aka creativity honed by craft) is leading you to good landings at the right spot.

Me, I’d like to see a bonfire at the airstrip, and an army of those guys who wave the sticks, telling me where to put it down.

Allison Leota then said: “I envy that kind of freedom. I’m too much a type-A to just let my characters grow organically.” And “I’ll know I’ve really grown as a writer when I can burn the outline. For now, it is next to my computer every day.”

Jon then explained that writing without an outline forces him to be “on” every day, and stay on top of his story. (He also thanked his editor, and said, “she taught me one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned, saying that when writing a scene, always know where the light is coming from. And ever since then, man, have my descriptions taken on a new resonance and impact.” Which I think is a fabulous insight.)

Mike Urban agreed: “If I had an outline, I’d feel pressured to adhere to it, which would make me nervous and unhappy. I’d also feel robbed of spontaneity and creativity. It is the ability to sit down every day and not know what is going to pop out that creates the thrill in writing.”

I said:

“When writing a scene, always know where the light is coming from.”

Jon, that quote from Natalia Aponte is going up on my wall, next to “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

As for the nitty gritty of our writing methods, this discussion is demonstrating that there is no one true path. I outline in broad strokes. That provides the bones of my plot, and its structure. But when I sit down to write a scene, I generally write with an open mind about how to put meat on the bones, and bring it to life. An outline never feels constraining to me. It’s architecture, it’s support, it’s a design that holds together. But the actual writing still feels creative. That’s what animates every chapter, gives it heart and depth and vividness.

My final comment was:

Einstein proved that energy and matter are two sides of the same coin. Mass can be transformed into energy. E = MC squared.

Likewise, plot and character are two sides of the same coin. They’re bound together. And when characters collide, combine, conflict… boom, energy is generated. The result: story.

Jon Land finished up with a great comment: “All of this for me comes down to the answer the great John D. McDonald gave when asked, simply, what’s a story: ‘Story is stuff happening to people you care about.’”

Which sums it up in my mind.

*Thanks to Ken Meiring for providing such a great comment!

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