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Plot vs. Character – Which Comes First?

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When you start a new story, which comes first: plot or character? Every writer I’ve ever meet seems to fall into one of these two categories. Their mind inevitably turns first to one or the other.

I am without question a plot-first writer. It has happened—more than once, I might add—that I’ve sent the opening scenes for a brand new story idea to a critique partner and they’ve come back and said, “Um…I thought this was a romance.” To which I respond, with just a hint of attitude, “It is. Absolutely. Why do you ask?”

The answer invariably encompasses some variation of: “Because there’s no romance, no hint of relationship whatsoever, in there. But you’ve got lots of action.”

Honestly, I’m surprised by that, every time. Because I felt the emotion as I wrote the scene. How can it not be on the page? Just to prove them wrong, I go back and re-read what I’ve written and sure as ants at a picnic, there is action all over the place, but no romance, no emotion, none.

I only have half the ingredients for a solid novel.

I have writer friends with the opposite problem. They write beautiful, heart-wrenching emotional scenes. But there is absolutely nothing happening. The characters are just sitting there, emoting all over the place, while the plot goes, well, nowhere.

So how do we find the happy medium? How do we keep our strengths, but shore up those weaknesses to draw out and create both components  of a good story?

One of the best tools I’ve found is a book by Jeff Gerke called, “Plot versus Character –A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction,” from Writer’s Digest Books.

Gerke says we’re all naturally better at one or the other, so his goal is to “help you with the part you’re not naturally good at.” (page 21)

For me, he did that and more. It is one of the most helpful writing books I’ve read in years. His step-by-step approach made fuzzy, mystical concepts suddenly become concrete and crystal clear. I highly recommend it. It has made a huge difference for me.

Have you ever thought about this? Are you a plot-first or a character-first writer? How do you balance the two? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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    The Conversation

  1. Luanna Grace says:

    Hi Connie,
    I fall into the character first camp. I think of a character, almost always the heroine, and then I put her into a sticky situation. Somewhere in the writing of the first chapter or two, her hero shows up. I’m a pantser, so the plot comes as it comes, hehe.

  2. Alana Lorens says:

    I’m a character person. If I generate characters that I love, I can usually find a plot to accompany them. 🙂

  3. Hum, that’s an interesting question, Connie. I consider myself a character driven storyteller. However, I see a scene in my head with action and conflict from the get-go. The first conflict is usually internal for the main character in the scene. Since I’m also a “in-the-mist” writer (I hate pantser! What do pants have to do with writing?), I progress from scene to scene.

    This approach makes for slow writing because I put in all the extraneous information in the first draft. Time of day, cloudy or rainy, smells, other folks in the scene, clothes. It’s sooo tedious, but that’s how I write and have for 20+ years. I’ve also written the last scene or last chapter right at the begining for several projects.

    • Connie Mann says:

      If it’s been working for you for 20 years, Joyce, rejoice! Even if that method takes a while. Your approach sounds fascinating, by the way. I write really short first drafts. They’re all action. I have to flesh out the characters later. 🙂

  4. Hi Connie –
    I am a character first writer. Two characters come walking toward me out of thick fog, and I slowly put them together. Once I’ve got their conflicts tight, I turn to the plot.

    Thank you for the book recommendation. It’s time for me to read a new book on craft, and I think his will be it.

    best,
    Lynne

  5. We’re supposed to have a plot???? Oh my. Please don’t tell my editors that, Connie. : ) Loved the post. You’re right on … the key is balance. Whichever we START with, the end product must contain both pieces which combine to make a lovely story that hopefully our readers can’t put down.

    • Connie Mann says:

      I won’t tell, I promise. Especially since I often have great plots missing characters people care about! Speaking of characters, I’d better get busy. 🙂 Thanks for great insights-and great stories.

  6. Katy Lee says:

    It’s plot first for me, then I create the characters worthy of the plot. Thank you for the book recommendation. I find I don’t struggle with this in the beginning, but as the story goes on, I start to lose focus on one or the other.

  7. Eve S Nicholson says:

    I am with you all the way. It is hard for me to see a character clearly until I know where they have come from and where they are going. It has been surprising for me to see so many fellow writers are strictly character first. I always say go with what works. For each of us it is different. I’m simply pleased to find I’m not the only plot first girl. Thanks for the book recommendation. I will look into that. 🙂

    • Connie Mann says:

      Thanks, Eve! I think everyone has their own unique process. We can get in trouble if we focus so much on the elements we’re good at, that we miss the ones we have to work a bit harder on. I can skip right over emotions if I’m not paying attention.