Sunday, February 13, 2011

What Comes First? The Characters or the Plot?

During my recent interview with Historical Author Kaki Warner, she mentioned that everything in her book was to show characterization and not necessarily to advance the plot. As a plot-driven author, I found this statement amazing. The fact that she does advance the plot comes secondary, I suppose.

I've given that statement a lot of thought as I outline my next story. I'm getting to know my characters, and will know them well by the end of the book. But I confess, right now, I don't know their character/backstory well enough to fill out character sketches, graphs or to conduct character interviews. Nor do I know what plot points to put them through to "show" their personalities or character at the beginning of the book.

I simply have to have a plot first (or have an idea of what kind of plot I'm writing) before I can focus on the characters. I've given some thought to creating a story for my teenage characters from my soon to be published novel, but the plot is shaping before I get to know these boys as grown men.

So how about you? Is this part of creating intrinsic? Kind of like -- the chicken or the egg? What comes first when you're writing? The characters or the plot? I'd really like to know your process.


Angi said...

Characters. Opening Scene. Plot to match the situation.

Okay, am I bass-ackwards?


kakiwarner said...

Did I say that? Oops. Plot is vital. Every scene should move the story forward. Period. But I think character growth should parallel that forward movement. Characters are ultimately defined by how they react to the conflict in your plot. Someone once said, in good books, the plot should be dynamic enough to either change the character or justify his death. (Check out From Here to Eternity--Prew's inability to change leads to his death. Same with Gus in Lonesome Dove). No matter where you start--with characters or plot--you must have both. Does any of that make sense? Probably not.

Donnell said...

Kaki, thank you! I think I was dwelling on the following answers from your interview, which appeared to me so character-driven. You knew them so intrinsically.

Kaki Warner: My stuff focuses more on the characters than the history. I start with a character give him/her a goal, then figure out what might stop him. It's about layering. I try to use something that might naturally occur (storms, drought, animal attacks, fire, etc.), then layer that with something that actually happened during that time frame (epizootic, political issues, railroad expansion, Indian wars, etc.) and finally I add the human factor (greed, love, fear, and so on).

The important thing to remember is that it's not about the politics, or the history, or the times--it's about the characters.

Mostly, I start with goals. Daisy had two goals: to sing on a real stage, and to do the right thing by her daughter. When I gave her a chance to realize one goal, it put her in conflict with the other. So she figures out a way to do both by going to Jack's family for money. (Note: the guy she killed was only there for characterization, i.e. 1) to show how far she would go to protect her daughter, 2) to give her an additional reason to leave, and 3) to add another element of tension later when her name shows up on a Wanted Poster).

Donnell: I'm trying to figure out this amazing process, because I think it adds a richness to the story.

I'm also finding many authors have a character first and thrust them into a plot. So unlike Angi who says she's bass-ackwards, I'm thinking I am! :)

Thanks for clarifying, Kaki!

Donnell said...

I guess I should ask Kaki. What comes first the chicken or the egg ;) e.g. what comes first the plot or the character? See how you have me thinking?;)

Annemarie Nikolaus said...

When I write historicals, my first look goes to the time period and its major events to see, what might be at stake at that time.
Then I find my main character (and I can't even tell you how they come to me) and her/his problems or conflicts caused through some event. Then come the major dramatic movements.
I've tried to develop plot more in detail than this, but it doesn't work. My characters do what they want to. No way.
Sometimes the character comes first of all - when I've fallen in love with one and I decide that those characer's story should be told too.


I pick a starting point and get to know my characters along the way.

kakiwarner said...

Great answer, Annemarie. I guess I also start with time and setting. Then character (including goals), then plot (as in obstacles to overcome to reach those goals). Like Angi, I find it's pretty straightforward in my mind. (PS: Just so you know, plotting is my greatest weakness, which is probably why I tend to gravitate to character-driven books. People who can write mysteries have my undying admiration for all the twists and turns they can think up.)

Donnell said...

I'm with Kelly on getting to know my characters. I've got the plots figured out long before I know the characters, and I think it's amazing our processes can be so different.

Thanks for sharing, and letting me put Kaki in the hot seat, but it was simply because I thought both her characterization and plotting were amazing.

I also play what if games to form the plot. Then I have to think what kind of a character would best fit the role. I mean, you wouldn't but Scarlett O'Hara in a CSI-theme book. Or wait! Maybe you would. Wouldn't that be a great time travel or whacky character.

Lynda Bailey said...

Most times, I start with a character - usually inspired by an actual person I've met or seen. Then I build the plot around them by asking a tons of "what if" questions. I've learned I need to know what's going to happen before I start writing. Otherwise, I end up with entire novels in my scrap file. 'Course that happens a lot anyway! LOL

Donnell said...

I still think starting with a character is incredible. Would love some examples. I mean there's plots in every newspaper article out there. But what is it about a certain someone that makes you think this person would be a great character?

Lynda, I love your icon!

kakiwarner said...

Donnell, it might be as simple as how you view the world. You see a person doing something and you picture where that action would lead. I see the same person and wonder why he/she's doing that. A different perspective, is all. Don't screw up your writing by trying to change that. Instead, hire yourself out as a plotter. Me first!!! (OK, I'll shut up now).

Donnell said...

LOL. Oh, please don't shut up, Kaki. I'm finding this discussion fascinating. But you're right, I've been thinking maybe my process is wrong! I wonder if artists have this problem. Do they start with a flower and let it bloom out to the rest of the portrait, or do they have the big picture in mind in the first place. Tis a mystery to me ;)

Lynda Bailey said...

One example would be the guy living down the street with an amputated leg. How'd he lose that leg? In the war? How else can a person lose a limb? Here in Nevada, there are tons of off-road enthusiasts. Could that be the reason? An ATV accident?
Now, instead of a guy missing his leg, what if it's a girl? My process goes from there. Hopefully, that is. LOL

Vince said...

Hi Donnell:

I think the character-driven/plot-driven dichotomy is the wrong model. I see both plot and character as being ‘pulled’ and not ‘pushed’ to the end of the story.

I start with story. I want to create, tell, a story that when it’s over, the reader feels that it was a great story. It does not make any difference to me who played the biggest part in the dynamics of the outcome. It could be plot or it could be characters.

If I have a great story, I will go to ‘central casting’ and hire the best actors for the part. I can do this because I am the boss, the producer, and the story comes first. When I know what the story is and how it ends, everything else follows. Like gravity, everything in the book falls towards the conclusion.

I might want to create a story about a washed-up boxer who makes a comeback and has people cheering at the end when he wins his last fight. Characters and plot can rearrange themselves all they want to. That’s fine as long as the story comes first.

Try this new model or paradigm.

Think organically.

It's everything for the story!


P.S. As a philosopher, I like to create my own paradigms but I'm happy to share. : )

Vince said...

Hi Kaki:

I’m 68 3/4% into “Chasing the Sun” and I’m curious about Daisy’s Wanted Poster. Is her picture on it?


Donnell said...

Wow, Lynda, thank you for sharing that perspective. You *turn* the possibilities and revolve a plot,e.g. story around her. Well done.

Vince, I love your paradigms; I'm glad you shared your thoughts. That's a very interesting story for Kaki. Was Daisy's picture on that wanted poster--I can't recall, I'll have to go re-read that section ;)

kakiwarner said...

LOL, Vince. I had to go check. No picture, but a drawing. Photos on posters were not that common back then. Mostly what stood out was her name and that she was female.

Great advice/paradigm, BTW. You always have the greatest insights. But for me, it's still character first. All the "what ifs" start there.

PS: You're absolute SURE you can't go to the CB Conference this summer? I could pick your brain for hours.

Edie Ramer said...

Usually I get a premise, then characters, and only then I think of other things that could happen and it becomes a plot. But for my next book, Dragon Blues, I had the hero in mind for a few years. I finally thought of a heroine who would match him. Only then did I think of a premise that would fit them.

Donnell said...

Edie, thanks for sharing your process. Your dragon hero is very appealing. Such an imagination!

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Because I'm a speculative fiction writer, plot and world are very important to my creative process. For me, character informs plot maybe to a slightly higher degree, rather than the other way around, though characters come quickly after. My feeling is that there is only one character a particular story can happen to, like in real life.

That said, early on i did start with character. Plotting is tough for me so I make myself do the tough work first.

Donnell said...

Wow, Sex Scenes at Starbucks, interesting take :) So am I wrong in gathering you have one POV per book? I do see your point in writing where I have to ask myself, whose story is it? And whose POV would make this scene strongest. I am so much more about plot and then adding the character. But the character has to be equally appealing if not more. Thanks for your comment.

Liz Lipperman said...

For me, it's always the plot. Actually, lately I've been starting with a title and a blurb. Then I brainstorm the plot. The character profiles are always filled out before one word hits the page.

Obviously, I'm an OCD Plotter. (I have to say these always change!!)

Debra E. Marvin said...

I definitely think of a story/plot and then find some interesting characters at odds. I'm way too much of a plotter to do it the other way. I hope a character comes to me first sometime and we build the plot together.

Oh that Vince!