Should You Start With Plot or Character(s)?

Whether plot or character comes first when composing a novel is sort of like the chicken and egg thing. It greatly depends on the author’s point of view. Plot and character are so entwined that it’s often hard to even separate the two. Like all elements of a novel-dialogue, exposition, description, pacing-plot and character are woven throughout. I think writing can be compared to weaving, where the threads are blurred within the composition of the overall pattern.

 

Guest blog by Kathryne Kennedy, author of the
Relics of Merlin series; she is best known
for her historical paranormal romances. She
has also written a fantasy romance and
a new Victorian historical romance,
titled My Unfair Lady.
 


After several books I’ve found that, although there are guidelines to writing, there are no hard and fast rules. That’s why the best authors appear to break them. So I would hesitate to give a definitive answer to that question, and can only offer what I personally do as a writer when starting a new novel.

I start with plot. I’m probably breaking the romance guidelines, as romances are known for their character driven stories. But then again, most of my books are a mix of fantasy and romance, so they’re a bit different anyway.

For me, I have to know where I’m going before I create my characters, even if it’s only a general idea of the plot. Once I have my external conflict (plot) I can then create the characters who would suffer the worst internal conflict within the story. So, if I have a storyline where the heroine must leave her village to find her missing father, who is tangled up in all sorts of political intrigue, I will create a character who is not an adventuress at heart. She’d prefer a cozy, quiet life of knitting and cooking and raising babies. The last thing she would want is to leave her peaceful home and go wandering about the dangerous countryside, eventually becoming tangled up in the same intrigues that cost her father his life. Her internal conflict will be so much greater than creating a character who longs for adventure and excitement. And her growth would be much more rewarding and life-altering.

And then this is where it gets interesting. Because once I create the characters, and plunk them into the story, they will take over, sometimes changing the plot drastically from what I’d first envisioned. And I let them. Because isn’t that the magic of writing, when the words aren’t coming from you, but the characters that you’ve created?

My upcoming release, My Unfair Lady, is a Victorian romance, and probably more character driven than any other book I’ve written. Inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion, I knew the plot would involve a brash American who comes to London and hires an impoverished duke to turn her into a lady. I knew that someone would be trying to kill the duke, and why. And then I created the characters. The heroine’s reasons for wanting her transformation seemed obvious at first, but then I gave her a secret, one that made her want the things she did, without knowing why, at least at first. When I created my hero I gave him a superficially glamorous life, and a boredom with it that would make my heroine seem like a breath of fresh air-that would make his desire to change her conflict with his growing attraction for her just the way she was. And then the magic happened. The internal conflict became so pronounced that it overwhelmed the external conflict, and I let them loose to figure out each other’s secrets. However, the external plot continued to throw them together time and again to give them a chance to do so. And it was pure joy to watch these two characters discover the truth about themselves, and fall in love with each other while doing so.

So should you start with plot or character? That’s all up to you, and the story you envision writing. But if you’re not quite sure, try starting with a general plot outline or idea, and create characters who would hate to be put into the situation you’ve created. And see where the magic takes you.

 

My Unfair Lady by Kathryne Kennedy,
a Library Journal Editors pick, and
a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly.


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0 thoughts on “Should You Start With Plot or Character(s)?

  1. Weronika Janczuk

    I always start with the characters; like Ellen, I want to get to know the people first. Lately, however, I’ve been having problems challenging my characters, and I’ve never really considered plotting something out entirely external to the characters – you may have ust given me the tool to solve my novel’s woes.

    Wonderful post, and thank you!

  2. Ellen Hopkins

    I always start by crafting characters I think my readers will want to know more about. I might spend two or three months in prewrite, creating these people. Then, with a general idea of where I want the story to go, I let my characters talk to me. Or thru me. i love hearing about others’ process, though!

  3. asrai

    Either or really. You can have a plot and come up with characters to be challenged. Or you can have characters (which is the case when writing a series) and figure out what situation they’d hate to find themselves in and throw them in there. It’s harder to start with characters tho.

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