What do you need for a story? Going down to the very basics, you need a character or two, and a plot. Right? So, which comes first? When you first start a new story, do you begin with a character who has nothing to do, or a plot with no one to enact it? I suppose the simple answer is that it depends. I’ve known some people who almost always start with plot first, and some who tend to get an idea for a character that they then have to build a plot around.
I can go both ways.
Sometimes I suddenly see a new character in my head so clearly. I know what they look like, what the sound like, their life stories, how they might respond in certain situations. I become very attached to them very quickly. But I have no idea what the character’s story is going to be. I actually keep a file specifically for such vacuum-grown characters. Sometimes I can sit down for a few days and hammer out a viable plot for the character, based partly on what I know of the character’s background, and partly by just generating as many “what if” scenarios I can think of. Sometimes I place these characters in worlds I have already built for other stories (which is why so many of my ideas keep turning into long series), but sometimes I find that the back-story or the nature of the character is not conducive to those worlds and have to create a new one just for them. But sometimes the poor character just sits in my file, waiting for me to have an epiphany and suddenly realize what the story is supposed to be.
On many occasions, however, the premise comes first. I have some seedling of an idea, a “what if,” a conflict, a plot point that makes itself at home in my head and doesn’t let go. This is not to say, of course, that I suddenly have the entire plot emerging fully formed in my head. I always still have to work out all sorts of details, thinking “I know I want this to happen, but how do I get there?” or “here’s how it starts, but what conclusion does that lead us to?” etc. But my seedling premises usually give me a clear sense of conflict and direction. And I’ll be honest, I generally like this better.
Now, I am a firm believer in character-driven plot. However, I generally find it easier to brainstorm and generate characters that are believable within a certain plot idea and then flesh out both the characters and the plot accordingly, rather than creating tailor-made plots for already fully-formed characters (which usually requires that I end up changing the character, at least a little).
For just a couple ideas on character and plot, and how the two relate, even in the brainstorming stages, I direct you to a few past posts by Jenni Holbrook-Talty and Anna DeStefano, whose “How We Write Wednesdays” are truly indispensable kernels of wisdom for writers.
“How We Write Wednesdays: Character Chart Time” by Anna DeStefano
“How We Write: Even The Best of the Characters Need A Little Plot” by Jenni Holbrook-Talty
So, what do you start with? Character idea or plot idea? Or are you one of those awesome people who can wake up one day and suddenly know what the entire story is going to be, character, plot, ending, and all?
(All this talk about character and plot is inextricably linked to the always-repeated question: plotter or pantser? But we’ll get to that next time.)