What comes first? The characters of the plot? I guess the answer is different for every writer, and often different for every book. I’ve been thinking about this since one of my daughters showed a rare interest in my writing and asked me what came first; my characters or my plots? My immediate answer was the characters, as this is how it so often feels. But as I went through the novels one by one, I had to admit that it’s different each time. For example, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side was an idea that grew into a character, followed by a more complex plot. The Tree of Rebels, which will be my next release, was undoubtedly plot before characters, more so than any other book I’ve written. I’ve blogged before about how difficult this made the process, and how it has taken longer for me to understand my characters and feel comfortable with them. With Elliot Pie (a book only in its first draft) it was the character first, but his character, in being someone who was intrinsically curious about strangers, was the plot. So they evolved simultaneously.
Having thought about it for some time I realised that my novels, This Is Nowhere and The Mess Of Me both have something in common. They were both written in the same way. I had the character first, and then had to create a plot to go with them.
I’m not sure this is the best way to write a book, but it’s just the way it worked with these two. With This Is Nowhere, I had the character in my head for some time, and with the character came the whole feel and tone of the book. Slightly sombre, dark around the edges, yet gentle, confused, struggling through mystery. I knew the character was a male in his late twenties or early thirties, and I knew he was rootless and aimless, a drifter. He had never grown up, but why was that? I knew he had a bad relationship with his father but the rest of that came much later. I knew he had a recurring stomach ailment, and had turned his back on the religion he had been brought up with. I had images in my head of a boy running across a sun baked field, though running from what I had no idea. The whole thing seemed to evolve in my head through feelings and images. I got the idea for the plot involving his missing mother when I was walking my dogs in the woods one day. I’m pretty sure, though it is hard to recall now, that my daughter had spoken to me about a missing persons case, and that had set something off in my head. What if this drifter was to return to his small home town in order to find out what happened to his mother, who vanished when he was a child?
With The Mess Of Me it was harder. In this case, I would probably not advise coming up with the character before the plot, although in all honesty I had absolutely no control over this!
Lou Carling started talking to me when I was about half way through writing The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. This was fantastic to me at the time. Having had a long break from writing, in tackling The Boy I was giving it all a go again, seeing if I still had the urge and the passion. When Lou started talking and grumbling, I was overjoyed because I had that feeling again. Of fireworks and ideas exploding in my head, of panic and excitement knotting in my belly, of wanting to hurry home to the laptop, of needing to scrawl notes onto scrap paper so I wouldn’t lose a thing. Essentially, Lou let me know that it was back. Writing was back.
I let her babble on for a while, mostly because she really amused me. She had just finished her GCSE’s and had a long summer before A-Levels ahead of her. She was deeply cynical about everything and everyone, and had a rather filthy mouth. Her best friend was a boy called Joe, a lanky, hazel eyed boy whose mother was her mother’s best friend. I could see Lou and hear her. In fact she barely left me alone. She would have constant conversations in my head, really interesting little nuggets of dialogue I just had to scribble down for later. But I had no plot. What was this book going to be about? What was going to happen to her? What did she want? What did she fear?
It took a while, but I got there in the end purely by listening to her, and being witness to the world that started to build around her. The claustrophobic council estate, growing up without money, feeling exasperated and embarrassed by her family. Hating everyone, especially herself.
I’m happy to admit that large parts of Lou are based on me, on my own experiences, on my own views and feelings growing up. In many ways, she is the character closest to me, at that age anyway. But I allowed her more freedom, letting her express herself when I was too shy to. Immensely liberating, I can tell you. The plot I ended up with actually came from a strange childhood memory.
When I was young, my mother had a friend who had five sons. She was a larger than life kind of woman, large in build and large in voice. She would sweep you in for a cuddle and nearly break your bones. She used to make jokes about swapping my mum’s daughters for her sons, and I used to think she was serious, and I was just a little bit afraid of her. I loved going to her house to play though. With her two youngest sons, me and my sister and brother used to trespass onto the grounds of their local school and play games with their pet dog. We would climb and hide in trees and bushes and behind walls and the dog would look for us. I can also remember playing with a huge mound of cardboard boxes in their back garden, making dens out of them, climbing up them and leaping off to crush the boxes below.
Her three older sons were teenagers when we were small. They flitted in and out of the background, and as I was so shy I probably never spoke to any of them. I watched them get the odd clip around the ear. One even had his mouth washed out with soap one day. But they were like mysteries to me. Part of my life, and yet totally unknown. They could have been anyone. They could have had any kind of life without me knowing. I had no idea who they were, where they went to, what they did, or what they dreamed about.
One day we were coming up the front path and one of the teenage boys was sat on the doorstep with his head in his hands looking absolutely miserable. In the cool dark of the kitchen, I overheard my mother’s friend telling my mum he was in so much trouble. They muttered and murmured in there for some time, while he remained on the doorstep. I never did find out what he’d done wrong.
So somehow, for some reason, this all crept into Lou’s world. The house full of boys. The mother on the warpath, driven to distraction by her unruly brood. Having these people you’ve grown up with, and yet never really know. Mysteries that unravel just out of reach and over the heads of young children who are told to go out and play.
The drug running storyline was of course utterly fabricated. It could have been anything really, the trouble the boys were in. Everything else from here on was pure imagination!
In many ways the drug running activities of Joe’s older brothers, and the way both Joe and Lou get pulled into it all, is a sub-plot to the main one, which is simply Lou’s journey over that summer. Her determination to lose weight and get skinny. Her finding herself, without it sounding too much of a cliche, was central to it all.
So that’s the story of The Mess Of Me. Where it came from and how it happened. It is probably my most character driven book, with the plot almost taking a back seat to the characters.
What about you? As a reader, do you ever wonder what came first, the plot or the characters? Can you ever tell?
What about you writers? Is it always the plot first, the characters later? Or the other way around? Which way does it happen for you, and does it make it harder to write if it happens in a way you are not used to?
Feel free to comment below!
8 thoughts on “What Comes First? The Characters or the Plot?”
I’m kind of the same as you. It depends on what I’m writing. I’ve found that sometimes I have a very chatty character in my head who is just dying to get noticed. Other times there’s an idea ready to become a plot. I’m finding though that I’m having more of an idea, an inspiration, than a fully developed plot. I think the character usually wins in coming first. I guess it’s because I believe we make life (the plot) happen although we have ideas/inspiration that can take us anywhere. This is a very chicken or egg type question! Got me thinking…
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Yes it did me too, when my daughter asked me. I soon realised I was wrong when I said it’s always the characters. It’s been different each time, though it certainly always feels like the characters are in charge! Thanks Lisa! Hope yours is all going well 🙂
For me, it’s often setting or “concept”, if you will, and then I develop some characters to fill that place and events, and flush out the details of the plot a bit – but often not very much. For my latest idea, I have I firm idea of the world and larger events, and now have a few interesting characters, but only the barest of plots. They’ll all grow in the writing, of course, but I do want a few clever ideas before I start this time, where before I was happy to run with only a vague destination in mind.
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Thanks James. Do you ever find it hard to come up with the characters, once a decisive plot or world has been created? Or do they tend to find their own way in quite naturally?
I think they pop up quite naturally but there is a risk that 1) they can be slaves to the plot rather than their own motivations, and 2) they can be obvious archetypes if they come up as you go along. Often requires a bit of second-guessing to make them a bit more interesting, and to clearly establish their goals. It’s one reason I prefer writing in single POV, so I don’t have to reveal everyone’s secrets (that I don’t know!). My new book idea has three main characters so that’s why I’m taking care over getting them clear from the start. It’s a bit different in fantasy than books like Mess of Me, though. I’m not surprised there was a bit of your life in there, it seemed so real.
Yes I think that’s been my issue with The Tree Of Rebels, where the plot came first. It’s been so hard to get the characters right! I can imagine it must be a lot harder in fantasy books actually. Yes I prefer single POV too! Does make things a bit easier at times!
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My situations come first and out of that spring the characters. By situations I mean I have a full colour painting in my head of a place and time which leaves me the job of filling in the details. When in my first novel Adam Webb ‘invents’ Miracle Mirror I didn’t know what path his success would lead him down. Consequently, although it’s finished I know I’m going to revisit it someday. Then I’ll find my own Miracle Mirror.
Thanks Ian. This book of yours sounds very interesting! I’m going to have to go and check it out 🙂