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A Writer’s Dilemma: Characters Versus Plot

photo by frechen

Yesterday, we asked you guys to share your opinions on which comes first in the writing process: characters or plot. We had so many great responses and as I read each one, I felt myself nodding in agreement, even if it was conflicting with the previous answer.

The truth is, neither method is right or wrong, it just comes down to a writer’s inspiration and preferences. So we decided to straddle the line of impartiality and present everyone with five tips for starting at either end of the spectrum.

One quick note before we start–I highly recommend trying both methods of writing. If you typically create characters first, change it up every once in a while and try developing your plot before thinking of characters. You never know what you may discover!

5 Tips for Starting with Characters:

  1. Take yourself out: Probably the hardest step in creating a great character is to remove yourself as the author. But the fact is, your singular experience as one person of a specific race and socioeconomic status could keep your range of characters pretty narrow. Give your characters license to do the things you’ve never done and be the person you’ve never been.
  2. Keep yourself in: I realize this is a total contradiction to Tip #1, but in all honesty there has to be a balance of the two. While you should push yourself to develop characters completely different from your own personality and experience, you must also acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to create a character from the ground up without including a part of yourself. It might be something small–a nervous habit, a secret hobby–but a piece of you will always lend a needed element of reality to your characters.
  3. Dimension in the Details: Keep your characters from feeling stale and flat with the use of little details that make fictional people seem human. Whether it’s a bad habit or a favorite food (like Myron Bolitar’s Yoo-Hoo obsession) something so small can do big things toward making a character seem real.
  4. The Twist: Avoid having your characters fall into a certain stereotype by throwing in an unexpected characteristic or trait. For example, the serious businessman who eats Fruit Loops for breakfast, or the inner city school teacher who comes from a wealthy family. Few of us fall precisely into pre-cut stereotypes and your characters should be the same way.
  5. Motivation = Direction: Understand the motives of your characters–what drives them? Are they motivated by family, money, greed, or goodwill? Knowing what drives them to do what they do will help lead you right down the path to a plot.

If you want to read more about developing characters, check out the blog posts from our Character Cavalcade Week (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 earlier this year. You might also want to experiment with our YA and Mystery Character Generators.

5 Tips for Starting with Plot:

  1. Start with conflict: The key to every plot is, of course, a conflict that must be resolved. Your conflict can take any number of forms–a question, an event, a circumstance–but whatever it is, it has to be something that your readers feel can be resolved by the main character. Whether it is actually resolved, however, is entirely up to you!
  2. Give readers a reason: No matter what your genre is, you have to hold the interest of your readers with a solid reason for them to keep turning the pages. There has to be an element of personal investment, be it sympathy for the main character, curiosity as to how a conflict will be resolved, etc. Something to drive a person to see things through to the end.
  3. Avoid getting bogged down in the details: This is one of my biggest hurdles in writing. It’s so easy to become obsessive over minute details of your plot–how did this person get from one place to another, how could they afford to eat at this restaurant, who was taking care of their dog while they were off saving the world? The reality is, most of these questions will never cross a reader’s mind. As long as the plot keeps moving and you avoid any really distracting incongruence, your readers will skip right over those little details.
  4. Don’t forget the TP: One of my middle school English teachers consistently referred to the turning point of a novel as the TP, to remind us that it is a staple of writing, much like the other kind of TP (toilet paper) is a staple of life. Knowing when your plot will turn a corner and start down the home stretch is critical. Knowing why your plot will take that turn is even more important–what is the catalyst that will shift your plot from conflict to resolution?
  5. It’s all about the angle: Once you have your plot nailed down, the transition to characters starts with you asking yourself whose perspective of this plot do I want to tell? Often it takes more than one perspective on a series of events to tell the whole story, but it’s up to you how much of the story you want to tell. What you don’t write is just as important to a good plot as what you do write.

As always, we welcome your feedback in the comments section below. And if you still have something to add to our discussion question yesterday, the phone lines (or in this case, the comments) are still open!

Thanks and have a great Labor Day Weekend!

Later days,

– Shannon

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  • These are all really good tips, and very well put. :) Definitely good reminders for myself, and a good page to direct new writers to who are asking for advice!

    Slán go fóill!

  • Annie

    I’m not sure I agree with the third plot tip. As a reader, I often notice the types of things exactly like those you mentioned, and inconsistencies like that really bug me. While I’m trying to enjoy a story, the question of what happened to the dog will be ever-present and lingering just behind my consciousness. I think writers should do their best to make sure those little details DO work out.

    Also, in the fifth plot tip – it’s “whose”, not “who’s”.

  • Or you could just start with the title of the piece and go from there. I can’t tell you the number of times that has happened to me.

    Or you start with the first line and build from there.

  • Erica Negi

    Great post. Writing is truly a “unique” process, but these are critical steps. Happy Writing!

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  • I write from a heavily character-oriented perspective, and love tips one and two. All of my best characters are decidedly not me, but if you know me super well, then you might be able to see how they’re some sliver of me, refracted through a prism.

    I’m a little leery of tip four, though. I agree in principle, but I think the little distinguishing details have to come up organically as you create the character. If not, the details often lack integration into the character as a whole.

    And thank you—grazzi, grazzi—for the TP plot tip. That’s giving me something to ponder.