The professor, in one of my numerous English classes, posed this question today:
“When writing a story, what comes first: the plot or the characters?”
He went on to explain how many authors tend to say that their “characters wrote the story” or talk as if their characters were real people, and that they (the author) was a mere passerby as the story wrote itself. How can character take charge of a story? How can a character write their own story? Those were the questions he posed to the class, as he was clearly baffled by the concept completely. For him, that is a hard concept to understand, which is a result of needing to be 100% in control of his own story, plot, characters, etc..
However, to me, that concept makes sense, and I was nodding along as he spoke of it. When I’m writing – and I’ll admit, planning things out isn’t my favorite thing in the world – I tend to stray away from whatever main plot idea I might have had, and let my story do what it wants. I allow the characters to take control of their own fate and allow events to happen as they happen. Now I’m sure this might sound crazy to some people, but in my mind it makes sense.
But, this all comes back to that question: When writing a story, what comes first: the plot or the characters?
That question has a way of defining a writers style, so I’m going to break it down like we did in my English class earlier today.
Have you ever had that moment when this super weird dream you had sits in your mind for days? Or had that crazily brilliant idea hit you while in the shower? You have this one idea, and just know how it is going to unfold in a story. You just know how everything is going to play out. You are in control.
Your plot is solitary the most vital piece to your story. A is going to happen, which will then catalyst B, and so on. Then this will weave in there somewhere, and this twist will happen… It is easy for you to sit down and outline this crazy journey that you are going to place someone in – you just don’t know who that person is yet. But what is important is that you have everything flushed out and are in control of what is going to occur and how everything is going to happen. Your story is born through the idea of an event, and everything else just builds into that.
Without a doubt, your main character always comes first. Suddenly, an image of a person comes to mind, and you just have to write about them. You sit there, flushing our their likes, their dislikes, their habits, their past, and more. Your character comes first. You want to know everything about them, and they want to know everything about you. As a writer, your character isn’t some two dimensional collection of words you see on a page – they are a living, breathing person in your mind. They are both concrete and abstract, all at once.
After establishing a character, that is when you figure out their situation. But, you know the plot is not going to be set in stone. Sometimes you will be in control, but for the most parts the character is going to drive the story. You get to know the people they interact with, and from there the world starts to grow. Everything that you know about your story is a result of what you know about your character, which is why they are the ones in charge. You’re just along for the ride.
Or, You’re Somewhere In Between
As a renowned pantser (Seriously, outlining is the worst), I find myself falling into a mix of these two spectrum extremes. Sometimes, I have this crazy dream (This one time, I was a badass ghost hunter, living in an abandoned dorm complex on my campus – which is now a baseline idea for a novel I’m working on) and I grab hold of that idea and create a character to go into the world. One character and one idea; that’s all that I start with. From there, I build the plot and the character(s) together, and can never decide on what I want to flush out first. Usually I’m jumping between the two, performing some sort of weird jig and jive.
But sometimes – and this is more rare for me – I have an image of a person come to mind. For a while, I just have a profile built of this character and their generalities, but they don’t have a world or a plot that they belong to. They just exist, and somewhere along the line they will find a home, whether it’s as a main or minor character. It’s all a matter of when that awesome idea finds its way into my mind, and then finds its way onto my laptop screen.
Not all of us fall into any single category – we are all falling in between. Or maybe you do solely one of those two things, I don’t know. That’s a result of the beauty of continuous variables: one day, you’re solely thinking within ideas of plot; the next, you’re starting a story with a character and nothing else. As a writer, you never fully know what to expect, but that also creates a strange and alluring sense of excitement and challenge!
So now it’s your time to answer the question: When writing a story, what comes first: the plot or the characters?
Sound off in the comments below!