Writerly Habits 3: What Came First, the Chicken or the Egg (Character or Plot?)

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.)


9 thoughts on “Writerly Habits 3: What Came First, the Chicken or the Egg (Character or Plot?)

  1. This is a great question and once we as writers begin to examine how we write we can then fill in the weak spots. Mine is character and I really have to work on that.

    Thanks for the mention. We’re having a lot of fun with our posts and it’s helping our creative processes too!

    Love the title of this post and love the chicken and the egg. Anna thinks she’s the Egg.

    • Heh, yeah I loved that picture, and I couldn’t resist.

      And I agree, self-examination is key to being a better writer. Hopefully, someday, something will come out of all this self-examination I’ve been putting myself through. *crosses fingers*

  2. Ummm… I think I wanna be the egg. Can I be the egg? LOL!

    I love how you describe the circular nature of plot and character. That’s what Jenni and I tried to capture in the first two months of our HoWW series. That one is the other, and both are indespensible, and in the end you have to find your own method of dealing with story.

    We’re one big writing community, and we’re all learning from one another how to make sense of this complicated magic we call story telling. That’s the community we’re trying to build in our Wednesday series. I’m thrilled some of it is working for you.

    Thanks for adding your voice and for linking folks over ;o)

    But, seriously, I wanna be the egg… He just seems so darned pleased with himself!

    • Thanks so much. I’m just glad I can part of this ongoing conversation about the nature of writing. I’ve come into this online community of writers kinda late in the game, but now I can’t imagine working without it. I guess everyone needs a sense of community, and its so wonderful to have others to learn from and work with.

      And LOL! You can certainly be the egg if you want to. Hah.

  3. The character seems to come to me first more often than the story line. I start to feel the character and then the plot that surrounds him/her. I tend to be more of a pantser than an outliner, so I have to feel my way through both. I do outline and character profile though. I go back and forth.

    • Sometimes I write like that. For instance, I’ve had one character sitting in the wings for a couple years now, but I think I’ve finally figured out what she’s supposed to be doing. Which was quite a relief.

      I’m an avid plotter… but more on that on friday. 😛

  4. Clearly I am fifteen emotionally because I am still giggling over this sentence: I can go both ways.

    I’m sorry.

    At any rate, because of what I usually write, I’ve always got my characters first and the plot usually slaps me in the forehead later, or sneaks up behind me while I’m doing something else.

    • That’s quite alright, I giggled when I wrote it. And I nearly made a comment about it too, then decided to just leave it alone and see what happened. So clearly, you and I think far too much alike. ^_^

  5. Both and neither. (Oh, come on, you knew I was going to say that…)

    Well, and it’s because actually, I usually start with a scene. Usually the “character” is just me, and the plot is anything I tend to daydream about…from a shoujo love drama, to a top secret identity being revealed, to a dragon landing on the roof of my office building (i’ve had that one a lot lately). It’s only after I’ve fantasized on it for a while that I actually start working it into a story. Most of my plots are a handful of dramatic scenes that i try to blend together with a lot of transition (and tend to write myself into trouble a lot that way), and my characters end up going from me to one particular aspect of my personality, and then develop outward until the character more or less develops a personality of her own.

    I mean, you probably know, but Cari, Cintra, Dai (both Dai’s even) all started out like that. And some, but not all of the characters in their stories come from weird mixes of other people I know. Putting the characters in a different setting with a unique plot of their own does help them develop personalities of their own though. Well, and letting the story hibernate for 5-10 years in my head helps too.

    But yeah…it’s also what makes my InsaneSoft characters so unique in their own right too. Some, at least, I created for the purpose of the plot. Others are just simply inspired by the world itself. But they’re not really based in any real-life references. And after their debut adventure, they usually have the freedom to develop however they want. It definitely makes them deeper and more interesting in that way.

    And that was probably getting slightly off-topic. But the point being, even though I wouldn’t say I’m really a “write what you know” type person, I do start off with both characters and settings and plots that I’m familiar with and comfortable with. I usually start off with a single moment or short series of moments, and let both the character and the plot develop each other over time.

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