What Comes First? The Characters or the Plot?


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!






Why Mother’s Day Is A Pisstake

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Before I start, let me just say that it’s not just Mother’s Day that gets on my nerves, it’s all these commercialised ‘days’ we have to have. It’s the fact that you can tell what ‘day’ is approaching by what exuberant displays greet you when you walk into the supermarket. For example, my local Home Bargains shop was nothing short of a confused mess just recently when they were displaying Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Easter all at the same time!

Loads of things annoy me about Mother’s Day. Maybe I’m bitter and cynical. Well yeah, probably a bit. I’ve had plenty of nice ones, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had plenty of those sweet little cards they help them to make at school, and I’ve had croissants smeared with jam brought up to me on a tray in bed, and I’ve had kisses and cuddles and flowers and the rest of it. But I’ve also never had a Mother’s Day where I wasn’t hanging the washing out on the line at some point, or sorting the next load out, or planning the next days lunch boxes. It’s like once the duties are performed, everything goes back to normal.

And I do think people see it as a duty. The shops tell us what we ought to be doing. They tell us what we ought to be buying and when. I was in my local Tesco yesterday and the ‘Mother’s Day’ aisle was full of bemused looking shoppers, hastily shoving bunches of flowers under their arms, as I did, whilst probably thinking exactly what I was, surely I can do better than this? It’s all so contrived, that’s the problem. It screams of tokenism to the extent that it just becomes embarrassing. It’s Mother’s Day, therefore I shall buy a pastel coloured card with flowers and butterflies on it and give it to my mother to thank her for giving birth to me way back when. What else? Okay, let’s look around. What do women like? More specifically, what do mother’s like?

This is the other thing that annoys me. It makes me want to pull out my hair. Because apparently us mothers are all the same. It doesn’t matter how old we are, or where we are from, or what we believe in or dream about, we all like flowers. And chocolates. And teddy bears. Oh, and polka dotted garden gloves. And pastel coloured watering cans. And ‘smellies’ to pamper ourselves with. And even more infuriatingly, chick lit books and rom com dvds! Grrrr!

It’s just as bad on Father’s Day. They get treated to the same assumptions. Whiskey and ‘manly’ chocolate such as Toberlone and Yorkie. Driving gloves, and footballs, and mini tools and t-shirts with slogans such as ‘I’m the Daddy’ on them. They get breakfast in bed too, cards made by the kids in the shapes of ties and cars, and then everything goes back to normal. Why do we do it to ourselves?

Now I’m sure there are people out there who put more effort in, and if so, I congratulate you. I’m sure there are husbands who put real thought into what their wife and the mother of their children would enjoy on this special day. Maybe she gets taken out for dinner, or maybe she gets a day to herself, or a voucher for a beauty treatment or some such shit. I still don’t care. I still think it’s a pisstake. I still don’t think we need these days.

It’s patronising for one thing. It’s like we’re saying; for most of the year I will take you for granted and neglect to tell you what you mean to me, but on this one special day I will do the opposite and make sure you feel spoiled. Surely we should be treating each other better on a more regular basis?

My husband and I, being the cynical pair we are, gave up on Valentine’s Day years ago. The first few years we were together we felt like we had to go along with it. We both bought soppy cards and we both scoured the Valentine’s shopping aisle for useless and pathetic suggestions. We soon realised what a complete waste of time it was. We don’t even bother with anniversary cards or presents now. What do we do instead? We grab small moments between child-rearing and working, to reminisce on how many years it’s been now, and what silly things we can remember about that night…I tend to remember music, and there are still certain songs that will make me think about meeting him and falling in love. Surely that’s enough? That, and being as good to each other as we can be.

Christmas cards is another. Why do so many trees have to die so that we can send cards to people we don’t bother with the rest of the year? I stopped buying them and sending them years ago. Tedious and pointless. I won’t be dictated to by my local supermarket. I know what time of year it is, and I don’t need their flamboyant displays of utter crap items screaming at me for months on end.

Mother’s Day is annoying because it so often ends up being a token day, full of token gestures that amount to very little. I’ve had too many where I have ended up bristling with resentment, because after all the flowers and chocolates, the daily grind goes on. In my opinion Mother’s Day should be spent in the following way;

Women who have given birth, and therefore know what is is like to carry another human around in their belly, before pushing and grunting and screaming and heaving that said human out of their nether regions, only to be then thrust helplessly into a whirlwind of sleepless nights, shitty nappies, teething and tantrums, should be able to get together with their own mother’s, minus the lovely, dear offspring.

These women, these mother’s, daughters and sisters should be allowed to get together around a kitchen table, with mugs of tea and plentiful cake. They should be left alone for as long as they require. They should not have the fear of interruption by man or child. They should be free to moan, bitch, gossip, cry and laugh with each other for as long as they need. They should be able to unburden themselves of fear, resentment, exhaustion and bitterness. They should be able to congratulate themselves on a job well done, before the day is done, and it is back to business as usual.

Tomorrow, me and my family are hosting a Mother’s Day tea party for my unsuspecting mother. She thinks she is coming over to have a cuppa with me, but actually it will be my brother and his family and my sister and hers. I’ve been baking cupcakes all day. I’m sure she will be touched and pleased, and I’m sure we will all have a lovely day. But I hope she knows when she leaves, that I feel this way about her all of the time, not just once a year. She gave me life and she worked her arse off to keep a roof over our heads. She makes me laugh with her eccentric ways and her sensitivity. I see a lot of me in her, and from the moment my first child was born, I began to develop genuine sympathy for what she went through looking after us all. Now, I know!

I hope she goes home knowing that she is always loved and appreciated, because really we shouldn’t need the greeting card industry to remind us to do it! So my advice is this. If you have a mother, go and see her. Go and spoil her. But not just tomorrow. Do it whenever you can and do it when it is least expected. Think about her dying and not being with you anymore and get your arse over there to share a cup of tea and a conversation. Life is bloody short, and if we leave it all to random, token days to tell people what they mean to us, then we’re really missing out. We’re really missing the point.