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Writing: Which comes first, the characters or the plot? [Discussion]

In thinking about our cycle of blog topics (branding, publishing, marketing and design) it occurred to us that we left out a critical component of the self-publishing process: writing! For all the obvious reasons, you can’t self-publish a book without…you know…writing it.

So with that in mind, we’ve decided to add writing to our cycle of blog topics, starting today. For discussion Wednesday, we’ve decided to pose the following question:

Which comes first, the characters or the plot?

Do you sometimes find yourself building characters and than trying to build a plot around them, or vice versa? I’ve done a little of both and I don’t know if one is easier than the other, but it does take a lot of creativity either way.

Feel free to share your opinions below! We want to know what you think, what you’ve experienced, and most importantly, what you have to say!

– Team Duolit

  • Characters definitely come first for me. I have a vague idea of the plot at best until they reveal it to me. I have to really know them before I can predict what they would say or do.

  • Definitely the characters for me too. If I came up with the plot first, I would have to create characters to fit the scenario, and that wouldn’t work for me.

  • Ditto on the characters. You can fake a plot, but you can’t fake a character.

  • It can work either way, I think. Each writer’s head works a little differently.

    I actually think of a story as needing three essential elements: the protagonist, the protagonist’s goal, and the obstacle that stands in the way of achieving that goal. It doesn’t matter which piece or pieces occur to me first, but I have to fill in all three elements of the equation before I can proceed.

  • Heather Grsyson

    I say Characters. I create them first, allow them to interact so that I can get to know them better. Then, a plot is born!

  • Both. For me, what comes to mind is a particular character in a certain situation. I need a working title as well before I can start. However, sometimes that changes as the story progresses.

  • Heather Grsyson

    I say Characters. I create them first, allow them to interact so that I can get to know them better. Then, a plot is born! I am a firm believer that you must know who you are dealing with in order for a plot to be executed just right.

  • Mine go hand in hand. I get an idea and the characters are already hidden inside it. The characters develop once I have the plot and they influence the finer details

  • I do both, for sure, but usually I end up starting with the characters. I’ll have little flashes of daydreams throughout the day about different characters. As they develop, then the situation comes.

    Sometimes, though, I start with a question – not even characters or plot yet. Like, I’ll turn to my BF and go, “What if….” and then a couple hours later we have a plot. :)

  • Shannon

    WOW! These have been some GREAT comments! Somehow I feel like I agree with all of you at the same time :-) madamduck, I love the idea of starting with a question and I often do that as well! Thanks so much to everyone for the great feedback.

  • Pingback: A writer’s dilemma: Characters versus Plot | Self Publishing Team | Duolit()

  • Characters ought to come first, and the plot should arise from what they do. That’s in a perfect world. In practice, when you’re writing to a deadline you often have to lead with the plot – because that’s the string of incidents that the reader/viewer will experience initially, so that’s easiest to block out. If you do it that way, unfortunately, characters will end up doing those dumb or out-of-character things that we are all too familiar with from TV, movies and bad novels. So don’t do it that way unless you’re out of time, is my advice!

    • Toni

      Thanks for your advice, Dave! You bring up a great point about sketching out characters before plot — it’s very annoying for readers when writers seem to forget certain traits they’ve given their characters.

  • Abby Geiger

    I find it easy to come up with characters and great scenes, but building an overall plot with a nice story arc is much more difficult.

    • Bringing all of the elements together is a HUGE challenge — planning can really help with this! Maybe check out Shannon’s writing outlines post?

  • Leefielding

    as an editor, I find my favourite submissions turn out to be stories that were plotted fairly freely at first, the writer following what the character was telling them, allowing the character to write their own plot…but, after a route had been plotted through the novel, the writer sat down and consciously set out a plot outline, planning the beginning, middle and end so that there was a satisfying amount of causality throughout. 
    And then changed the goalposts whenever it was needed.

  • Both compliment each other. Some plots require a certain set of characters, and those characters, in turn, drive the plot further. To bring the plot (or subplot) to a satisfying finish, we sometimes need to ask, what could induce this character to do what it takes to bring the plot to the desired finish?  And, of course, that involves more plot…

    • I agree, Robby — an argument can be made for both (and for a chicken-and-egg type scenario). Thanks for sharing your comment!

  • sam browne

    the first time its easier to have a plot then figure out the characters needed

    the next time you already have the characters and know their abilities so need to come up with a plot that fits them