When you’re writing a story, which comes first: the plot or the characters? This is a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum many new writers (and veterans) face as they’re crafting a story. Should the character’s personality, background and decision-making drive the plot? Or does the action of the story make the character who she is?
The short answer, of course, is both.
The long answer is… Well. It’s explored below. I’ll let you decide.
Sometimes this question is partly answered by genre. There are no hard and fast rules, and every writer’s process is different. But I have noticed some trends in the writers I know…
Generally, the more important the plot is to the story, the more likely a writer will be to start there and flesh out characters later. Think about thrillers, suspense, some romances, sci-fi, fantasy (though there’s an argument to be made that fantasy begins with neither plot nor character but setting and world-building). These and other high-concept stories are more likely to start with the action of the plot, and build the necessary characters as the writer goes along.
More character-focused novels such as psychological thrillers, dramas, family sagas, women’s fiction, character studies, and fictional biographies might begin with characters and their histories, with the writer building the intricacies of the story’s plot based on who the characters are, what drives them, and how they make decisions. Authors of these stories may start with a general story concept or a basic beginning and ending, but rely more heavily on character development in the beginning of the process.
No matter where you start, the important thing is to allow the plot and character to influence one another as you write, so by the time you’re finished with the final draft, they’ll be so seamlessly entwined that the reader will have no idea which came first.
There is also a third, less-talked-about element that binds them together: Emotion.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — a widely regarded approach to psychology founded by psychiatrist and professor, Dr. Aaron Beck — mental health professionals talk about the cognitive behavioral cycle: in which thoughts create feelings, feelings create behaviors, and behaviors reinforce thoughts. While not applicable to every mental health situation, it’s a useful paradigm for seeing how human beings think, act and change.
And, when you consider that most of our characters are human (or at least creatures with humanlike psychological qualities), and presumably all our readers are human–this paradigm is also useful for looking at storytelling.
In storytelling (as in life), characters are driven largely by their emotions, habits and instincts. Some of these are deep-seated, created in the character’s earliest memories and history. Others are reactions to more recent relationships and experiences. They may be conscious or unconscious, positive or negative. Either way, they impact how a character presents himself to the world, and how he acts within the story.
The protagonist’s (or main characters’)* choices drive the progression of the plot, and those choices must proceed authentically from who the character is, or readers will feel disconnected from the story and the character.
The plot of a story is made up of action and events. Plot provides the book’s pacing and keeps readers turning the pages to find out what happens next. The action of the story creates change in the characters, allowing them to grow and evolve over the course of the story. This includes internal and external events, along with the characters’ reactions and decisions in response.
Characters respond to external events: circuses arriving, financial market collapses, plane crashes, sharknadoes, spouses forgetting to take out the trash after they’ve been asked repeatedly. They respond to internal events: depressive episodes, mounting frustration, generalized ennui, boredom, lust, hallucinations, mistaken beliefs, happy thoughts, hunger, wanderlust, etc. They also respond to the actions and behaviors of other characters, which are driven by their own set of traits, memories, beliefs and habits. (One character’s internal event can quickly become external to another).
Since characters are inherently flawed, their responses to events are flawed, too. This is how we start with an inciting incident that is often beyond a character’s control and THEN THINGS GET WORSE FOREVER. Once it’s started, the plot grows and the tension increases, bouncing off the characters like a hairy pinball until it all comes to a head at the climax of the story.
And the climax, my friend, is where all the emotion generated by the plot and characters comes to a delicious, terrible head.
Emotion is the element often overlooked in the planning stages of writing. Perhaps because it’s more nebulous and challenging to write than concrete character traits and plot events. [Emotion is easy to overdo if you’re too deliberate with it; but if it’s lacking, your story will often fall flat for reasons that readers can’t quite put their finger on.] Or perhaps we don’t talk about it in the planning process because skilled writers naturally infuse their work with emotion on an intuitive level, hardly realizing that they’re doing it.
Regardless, emotion is the heart and soul of your book, and the reader experience with it. It’s also the glue that connects plot back to character in the “PCE Cycle.” Emotion is the reason your characters are impacted by the events of the story. It’s the agent of change for both characters and the reader. Without emotion, all characters would be automatons or cardboard cutouts, we’d have no one to root for, and we’d give up and watch Reality TV instead.
For example, say our adult heroine’s mother was killed in a car crash when the heroine was a child. That’s an external event that influences who she is, before the story even begins. If the character was in the backseat at the time and survived, that adds a new layer of trauma, significance and internal experience to the event. If she has refused to ride in or drive a car ever since, that is a character trait developed in response to her history (but also based on who she is naturally). If, in the first chapter of our story, she refuses to take a cab despite being late to her brother’s wedding, the decision based on her character trait impacts the plot. If she meets our hero on the subway and they discover a mutual attraction, that is the first emotional turning point. If he agrees to go to the wedding with her to deflect her brother’s anger, the stakes are officially higher, and we’ve got a story on our hands.
Meeting the hero on the train (aka the inciting incident) both reinforces the heroine’s decision not to drive, and complicates her life. Especially if our hero lives outside the city and drives everywhere. Or… [*writer wheels spinning*] if he’s a long-haul trucker or… oh! A race car driver. (A career choice that’s a reaction to his family’s constant pressure to stay put in their tiny town and help his dad run the family business — so he will never give it up).
See what I did there? Both characters have history that informs their behavior, which creates conflict, and the conflict will govern the plot. The plot will give us moments that produce emotion for the characters and the reader: love, fear, grief, anger, happiness, infatuation, attraction, horror, anxiety, frustration, confusion… Those emotions help mold who the characters are, and who they will become as the events of the story run up against their initial way of being in the world.
Good plot challenges our characters to change something about themselves: to face their fears, overcome prejudice, accept vulnerability, allow difficult emotions, set aside previous habits. When a character is forced to change and grow, creating new actions and conflict, that is when a plot becomes a story.
When I’m coaching a writer on planning a story, we often find that the ubiquitous “saggy middle” turns up in Act II, when the author can’t figure out how to build the plot from point A to B. He often knows where the story starts, and where it should end, but keeping the tension high and the pacing strong in between can be tough. How to decide what choices, events and crisis points should occur between the inciting incident and the midpoint, and the midpoint and the climax?
Coming up with plot events is easy enough. You’re the author, and you can make anything happen. Car chases, explosions, rainy days, awkward phone calls, uncovered secrets, twists of fate, family fights… You can bring the lovers together or separate them. You can give the detective the clue that leads her to Amsterdam, or misdirect her to Istanbul. It’s your fictional world, and we’re all just living in it.
But for those plot points to truly raise the tension and sustain the story, they must have a deep and fundamental relationship with who your character is. What drives him to pursue the girl, or the thief, or the mystical object at the end of the quest? What demons from the past, real or imagined, drive him? What obstacles can you put in his way that are uniquely difficult for your character, and how will they test and push him?
Two hours spent stuck in rush hour traffic with a talkative coworker would try anyone’s nerves. But for a reserved, regimented loner with claustrophobia (or a fear of riding in cars as mentioned in the previous example), it would be her worst nightmare. It would force her into feelings and behaviors most people wouldn’t consider. And that is where your story must go, to the place that is not just tense and uncomfortable or challenging, but specifically tortuous for that character (or those characters, when you have more than one protagonist/main character).
So if you’re feeling stuck in your story, or you find your plot’s middle is a bit saggy, stop and consider your character: her goals, motivations, drives, and fears. Let her guide the story in ways that test her mettle. Allow her to struggle and emerge victorious, changed in a way that will leave your readers cheering, sobbing, laughing and/or begging for the next adventure.
*The main character and protagonist are not always exactly the same thing, but that’s another blog post. They’re used interchangeably here, with the understanding that an antagonist can also be a main character and can influence the story as much or even more than a protagonist.
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