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?*


*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.

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