Plot or character: which comes first?

Plot character
Chicken and egg, or plot and character?
Chicken and egg, please move aside. I think this question is a lot more difficult to answer. Depending on genre, plot and / or character are both likely to be important elements of your tale. But which is more important? Which do you start with when you decide to embark upon the writing of a book?

These questions are in the forefront of my mind at the moment. Although I have already written the first draft, I am in the throes of the stage many people refer to as the most difficult – REwriting. My chapter summary is drawing to a close, and so I need to decide which element to look at next. I had originally assumed I would work through the weekly lessons we were taught on my self-editing course in the order we covered them, meaning plot would be next, followed by character. But I am beginning to rethink this approach.

What is plot? What is character?

Plot is, essentially, what happens in your story. The beginning, middle and ending, say. The key events that astound readers while moving your story forward (or backward, if that’s where you want to go). Characters, perhaps obviously, are the people (and sometimes things) who populate your story – their likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, their deep, dark, secret pasts.

I alluded, in a previous blog post on villains, to the fact that the relative importance of plot and character will depend on the type of book you are writing. Some books (such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) are driven more (but not solely) by plot, and others (such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) are driven more (but again, not solely) by character. Realistically, the majority of books do fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Either way, the two, unsurprisingly, interact very extensively. But how?

How do plot and character interact?

Even a thrilling, explosion-filled plot has the potential to fall flat if the characters are one-dimensional and you really don’t understand why they were in the thrilling, explosion-filled situation in the first place. By contrast, the most interesting, nuance-ridden character might have you falling asleep in the pages if nothing, well, changes for them, even if it’s just some sort of internal realisation. So it seems that, in most cases, both a strong plot and interesting characters are desirable.

So, assuming we need them both, do the events of the plot cause the character to make certain decisions and feel certain emotions? Or does the plot pan out in the specific way it does because a character has specific traits and preferences? In an ideal world, the two will feed off each other in an almost-never-ending symbiotic cycle. The heroine will decide to venture out on a dangerous mission because she is brave, but what does she do when the mission is unsuccessful? That depends on her personality – she might sulk and find an alternative pastime, or try again, or become horribly murderous. The arc of the plot will look very different in each case.

But even the most perfectly symbiotic storyline has to start somewhere. So which should you start with – plot or character?

I think it really depends on what ignited your spark of creativity in the first place – was it a key historical event you feel has been overlooked by novelists, or a vision of a man staring out of a window thinking of something unspeakably sad? If the plot pops into your head first, start there. If, instead, you find yourself creating characters out of nothing, then feel free to continue doing that.

In both cases, the important thing is to remain flexible. Allow the plot to evolve as you create characters to influence it, and the characters to pad themselves out as they react to the unfolding plot. If your plot needs to do a u-turn to accommodate the nefarious ways of a character you absolutely adore, then so be it. If you are dead set on a certain sequence of events that really wouldn’t happen to your protagonist, then you might need a new protagonist. Just don’t try to force a plot and character to co-exist if it doesn’t feel natural.

I really can’t recall where I read it (or I would post a link here) but something I found very useful was to consider whether your plot still makes sense if you remove the main characters. If so, then your characters aren’t sufficiently embedded in your plot (of course, this might not matter to you if you are writing a purely action-based sort of book…).

So how do you do this in practice?

Plot and character – a case study

My book started with a fortune teller from Victorian London (character), then the feeling of eeriness I wanted to create with the setting – when would a Victorian fortune teller feel out of place? I know, when her travelling circus takes her to the Peruvian Andes (plot). Why did she join a travelling circus in the first place? Perhaps she wanted to leave London because she had a troubled past, and the resulting turbulent emotions cause her to become obsessed with something or someone in Peru (character), which causes her to do something strange (plot)…

You can hopefully see how my plot and character slowly influenced each other bit by bit in the initial stages. Broadly, I had the basic outline of some characters and a plot in my mind before I started writing, and these refined themselves gradually, weaving new story arcs as I got to know my characters better. Eventually, the strands wove themselves into an ending, and I am now sitting here with a finished first draft.

Which leads me to one of my original questions – how am I going to approach the question of character and plot in the remainder of my self-editing?

Phase one (my chapter summary) has brought up some interesting questions. Is it possible for character A to think X about this but Y about that? Would character B realistically do Z? Clearly some of the questions involve both character and plot – if character B wouldn’t do Z, then Z would never happen, which would undoubtedly change the course of the plot, if only marginally.

So which to consider first?

When it comes to reading, I tend to favour a character-driven narrative. Characters and their quirks are what get me really interested in a book, and I’m no different when it comes to the writing of one. I care more about whether or not character B would, in fact, do Z or not, than about whether Z actually happens. Therefore, I think my next self-editing step is to carry out more in-depth character studies (interviews, profiles, etc.) based on what I have written and whether this corresponds with the vision of the characters I have in my head. I will then turn my attention to plot, using my (hopefully) new and improved knowledge of my characters to refine events I was uncertain about and weave together the few plot strands still stubbornly dangling loose.

Of course, somebody else in my situation might prefer to start with plot, and that’s absolutely fine. Chicken and egg, remember?*

-Kirsty

*For the record, I’m plumping for the egg. Reason? Presumably (and I’m not a biologist), the chicken evolved from a bird that was similar to a chicken but not quite a chicken. An egg has always been, well, an egg. “So what came first, the not-quite-chicken or the egg?”, I hear you ask. Well that question is a lot like the question of plot and character, i.e. a lot more difficult to answer.

Inca Autumn and Victorian Halloween – a few traditions

Autumn
But where’s my apple?
In one of my first blog posts, I mentioned that, being a woodsmoke-and-gluhwein kind of girl, I was a big fan of autumn. It isn’t quite woodsmoke season yet (it’s a balmy 23 degrees at my desk) and pregnancy will mean a little less of the mulled wine for me this year, but that doesn’t change the fact that autumn is just around the corner.

When I was a child, autumn brought a new pencil case and a stiff, yet-to-be-worn-in pair of school shoes. I haven’t purchased the former in a decade, but the season is still full of promise to me. Now it means spicy bean soups, scary films watched from beneath a blanket, and cider at rugby matches in the cool (and, most likely, wet) air. It also means BACK TO SCHOOL, or rather, back to my self-editing and my blog.

This time last week, I was working on my chapter summary in a swimsuit, with a glass of fruit juice and a view of the Adriatic and its myriad islands. Today, it’s Helly Hansen hoodie, cup of mint tea and loooong to-do list scrawled across my desk whiteboard. So in the back-to-school spirit, and before I slog on with my chapter summary, I thought I would steal an idea from my springtime blog post and write about Victorian and Inca autumnal traditions.

Victorian autumn – skulls and sliced apple

  • Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night as it was known back then, has changed relatively little since Queen Victoria’s reign – fireworks, bonfires and blazing effigies all played a part then and still do today. Effigies of Jack the Ripper were particularly popular during the autumn of 1888, around the time of his infamous killing spree.
  • In contrast, Halloween (one of my favourite celebrations) has evolved over the last century and a half. True to form, many people living in the Victorian era, especially in Britain, preferred a highly sanitised festival, more about matchmaking and marriage than ghosts and ghouls. Across the Atlantic, Halloween retained a little more of its Samhain-derived creepiness.
  • Should you have attended an American party on October 31st in the late 19th century, you might have found yourself (if you were a young maiden at least) eating apple segments in front of a mirror at midnight. If you were lucky, the face of your suitor might have appeared next to your own reflection. If you were unlucky, you might have seen a skull instead, a sure sign of impending death as opposed to an upcoming marriage.
  • If apple-eating didn’t appeal (no pun intended), you could have hitched up your skirts and jumped over a candle flame. Should the flame remain, good luck was yours for the year to come (notwithstanding any skulls seen in mirrors, of course).

Inca festivities – ear plugs and hair hangings

  • My post on the Inca festival of the moon mentions llama sacrifice, deceased guests of honour and saliva-fermented corn beer, none of which were unusual aspects of an Inca festival at any time of year. But what else might you have expected to see during autumn in Peru (March – May) in the 16th century?
  • Pacha-Pucuy (broadly, March) saw the potato harvest. Shamans would contact “the other side” to ensure a good crop, and men would purify their souls by staying away from salt, fruit and their own wives.
  • Inca Raymi (April) was time for a festival (yes, another one) honouring the emperor (more llamas were sacrificed, naturally), including feasting, chicha-drinking, throwing games and ear piercing. The inhabitants of the Inca empire favoured huge ear piercings made even wider through the use of ear plugs – the larger the hole, the more noble its bearer.
  • During Aymoray Quilla (May) the corn was ready for harvesting. Reason enough for a festival? Of course. It wasn’t all fun and games during this month though – everybody was expected to contribute charqui (jerky), fabric, meat and crops to the empire’s vast stores, and failure to do so resulted in prompt punishment. Given that the Inca favoured such punishments as hanging by the hair over precipices, I think this was probably best avoided…

Back in the 21st century, autumn 2016 is only just kicking off, and I’m hoping for plenty of feasting and fireworks, plenty of ghost stories, but a little less of the ritual sacrifice.

-Kirsty

Voice in writing: what is it and how should you use it?


Voice in writing
Voice: louder isn’t necessarily better…
“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression” is possibly one of the most commonly given pieces of advice to prospective job interviewees. At least part of the first impression you give comes from your voice – its volume, pitch, tone, speed, and, unsurprisingly, the words themselves.

Well, it’s exactly the same with writing. Your voice, or the specific, almost indefinable way in which your words are put together, will help a reader (or literary agent) decide within a matter of seconds whether or not they can be bothered to turn to page two.

So what is voice? How do you know yours is a good one? And how can you find it if you have no idea where it’s gone?

What is voice?

Voice was one of the weekly topics covered by my self-editing course, and, to me, the single most useful thing we learnt.

Many elements contribute to voice and these are just some of them:

  • Atmosphere – whether you want the reader to instantly feel the story is spooky or funny or sad.
  • Whether a character or separate narrator (or some combination) is telling the story – you might want the voice to differ drastically between characters / narrators (should you write from the perspective of more than one). Whether you want to write from a first person or third person perspective (broadly “I went” compared to “Kirsty went”) will also have a bearing on how you employ voice.
  • Where the storyteller is “standing” in a figurative sense, i.e. whether they are experiencing events along with the reader or looking back, and who they are telling their story to (and why) – do they know, and therefore, allude to later events of the book, or is everything as much of a surprise to them as it is to the reader?
  • Dialect – do you want this to be more authentic to the character or (potentially) easier for the reader to get to grips with quickly?
  • Rhythm of your prose – sentence length and structure, how varied they are, any patterns you employ.
  • To what extent the character’s thoughts and emotions colour the prose – psychic distance (i.e. how far inside the character’s head the reader gets) is closely linked to voice. I plan to cover it more fully in a future post, but read this very useful blog if you want to find out more (incidentally it is by Emma Darwin, one of our course tutors).
  • The types of words you use – big ones, small ones, descriptive ones, functional ones, commonplace ones, unusual ones etc etc.
  • The things you focus on – people or objects, colours or shapes, the big picture or small details, the whole forest or an individual tree.

In short, voice comprises both the style and substance of your writing. It is the thing that makes a reader want to read on for a reason they can’t quite put their finger on – essentially, they like both what the storyteller is saying and how they are saying it.

So how did we use this information to enrich our writing on the course?

Voice – what did I learn?

Before the course, I already knew what voice was, at least theoretically, and I knew that mine was reasonably good (or “idiosyncratic” as my year 10 English teacher put it) but I had never really thought about it, or experimented with it in any way. I mentioned in a previous blog post that I have always favoured writing in third person, and this is the perspective I have chosen for my book.

So when we were told that our week 3 exercise was to take a two-character passage from our book and to make three versions of it (third person, and then first person from the perspective of each of the characters), I was very excited about the challenge and what I could make of it. The purpose of the exercise was to see how our voice differed from extract to extract.

Here’s what I did:

Third person (as in my book draft)

Sadie frowned as she scanned the pack.

‘Tell you what?’

She already knew what her friend wanted though. Her pulse raced as she reached towards the cards. She picked them up, looked at them one by one. Five cards. Five ambiguous cards. Lora beamed.

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again.’

Sadie patted around the blanket for the bottle, unwilling to look up from the cards, to see the look on her friend’s face. Her mouth felt dry – she needed more brandy. The magician. She had always liked that card, liked to pretend it was her. Fortune telling was magic, was it not? The brandy slicked her tongue but her lips still rubbed like parchment. The empress. Perhaps a Peruvian empress? She looked exotic in the picture, a bit like Lora’s sister but less surly. The next card was justice. She put it to the back. The hermit. The moon. What did they mean?

Sadie had asked a question once before. Three pence, no refunds. The answer had been no in her case. Lora wanted to see her child again – her friend Lora who was always so happy. She didn’t look happy now though, biting her bottom lip, a crease of skin between her eyebrows. Perhaps that was a good thing. Use your skills to get what you want, the old man had said. Sadie wanted happiness. She looked up at her friend.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

First person (Sadie)

’Tell you what?’

I didn’t need to ask that but I wanted to buy some time, to delay a moment longer. My heart raced, my temples began to burn. I picked up the pack of cards, slowly, slowly. There were five. Five cards that I stared at but didn’t really see. I glanced at Lora. She was smiling.

Why did she have to be smiling?

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again’, she said.

Just as I had thought. Where was the brandy? Perhaps I’d let liquor make my decision for me. I opened the canteen, tipped it back. I was parched anyway, tongue like a paper bag. I flicked through the cards again, anything but see the look on Lora’s face. The magician. I swallowed a smile. I’ve always liked that one – fortune telling is magic, is it not? I licked my brandy-laced lips. The empress. Exotic, Peruvian perhaps. Better not tell Lora the empress looks like her sister, that’d snatch the smile from her face. The next card was justice. I put it to the back. The hermit, the moon. What did they mean, really?

I had asked a question once, a long time ago. Handed over my coins but the answer was no. I looked up at my friend. So happy usually, but not today. Why should the answer be any different for her? She bit her bottom lip, creased her eyebrows. Use your skills to get what you want, the old man had told me. I wanted to be happy, like Lora.
I took a breath, my pulse slowed.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

First person (Lora)

It was just a bunch of symbols really. Nonsensical magic-type stuff. But Sadie glanced from card to card, searching for an answer or reading something I couldn’t. She obviously hadn’t found it this time. She looked confused, distracted. I wasn’t sure if she’d heard my question but she looked up.

‘Tell you what?’

I clutched the blanket to my neck. It was itchy, but better itchy than cold. I looked back at her, forcing a grin I didn’t want to give. Just ask the question for God’s sake. She’s your friend.

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again.’

There. She had to answer now. She had to say yes. The cards always said yes. I waited. Sadie clawed at the lid of the canteen, glugged back my brandy. The air inside the tent was hot with the fumes of her breath, my breath. I didn’t want any more to drink though. I just wanted my answer.

Sadie looked at a card, smiled, looked at the next one. Why was it taking her so long? The canteen lay on the camp bed between us, soaking the blanket, water droplets reflecting the lantern light. I wanted to reach for it but I couldn’t, not until Sadie answered. I waited, nails digging into palms. The cards always said yes, didn’t they? She stopped shuffling, looked up. She took a deep breath.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

***

That single exercise took less than an hour and yet it taught me so much – one of the main things being that I should use “close-in” psychic distance a lot more when I get down to the nitty gritty of editing my book. This will hopefully add to the distinctive flavour of each character’s voice even though I am writing my book in third person. I thought I was doing a pretty decent job of using psychic distance effectively until I read my original third person piece straight after my first person pieces – it felt rather flat and dull in comparison.

I also realised how useful it is to consider the wants and needs of the other characters in any given scene – you might not want them to be the focus but how do their emotions colour any interactions they have with the main character? Finally, the most important thing it taught me is to experiment, experiment and experiment some more! Write in first person and third person, in past tense and present tense. Write scenes about characters you love and characters you hate. Write comedy even though you hate laughing, and tragedy even though you can’t bear to cry. Much like your speaking voice, the more you practise, the more confident your writing voice will become. And much like your speaking voice, should you lose it, well, that’s nothing a tot of whisky, honey and lemon won’t solve…

-Kirsty