Which Comes First: Character or Plot?

Image: person walking across pavement which is painted with signage indicating to look both ways

Today’s post is adapted from the new book Writing the Novella by Sharon Oard Warner.

In college classes, bookstore readings, and writer’s conferences, someone always asks:

When I’m writing a _______ (story, novella, novel) which do I develop first, character or plot? 

Sounds silly, in part because it echoes the chicken and egg conundrum. But the question is legitimate and deserving of a thoughtful answer.

In my experience, the inquiry comes most often from undergraduates working on short fiction. Here’s what I tell them: If the story is brief and the character captivating, that’s two-thirds of what the writer needs to keep the reader in her seat. (The other third is a compelling prose style.)

Because the ride is quick, short fiction readers are happy with a quick jaunt around the block in someone else’s car. But if you make it longer, a road trip, you are likely to be peppered with questions:

Where are we going?

How much of my time and attention will it take?

And, what will I gain from the experience?

Even if your protagonist is engaging and articulate, most readers won’t commit unless they’ve been sold on the trip itself. Reading a novella or a novel is an investment of sorts. And readers see it precisely that way.

So do writers, that is if they are looking at the bigger picture. Their investment is considerably larger than a reader’s. The time it takes to write and revise 100 pages is roughly ten times what it takes to write ten pages. The bigger the project, the higher the stakes, and if you are looking to publish your fiction, well, length makes it more challenging. I started as a short story writer, and my stories tended to be lengthy. As a rule, they ran 20-30 pages. More than once, I received a regretful rejection letter from an editor expressing his/her frustration at having to decide whether to publish my story (and make me happy) or two or three shorter pieces (and please those writers). Generally, I lost out.

Genre versus literary debate

If you have read your share of books on the craft of writing, you will be familiar with the assumption that writers of genre fiction are plot people, while writers of literary fiction are character creators. Graduate students are often dismissive when it comes to plot.

Here’s what I tell them: Whether you are writing horror or haute literary, your novella or novel needs both an engaging protagonist and a compelling plot. Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe novelist John Irving:

What makes a novel “commercial” is that a lot of people buy it and finish it and then tell other people to read it; both “literary” novels and failed, messy novels can be commercially successful or unsuccessful. The part about the reader finishing the novel is important to the book’s commercial success; both good reviews and an author’s preexistent popularity can put a novel in the bestseller list, but what keeps a book on the list for a long time is that a lot of those first readers actually finish a book and tell their friends that they simply must read it. We don’t tell our friends that they simply must read a book that we are unable to finish.

Ask and answer this question. And answer honestly:

What compels you to finish a book; what keeps you reading to the very end?

It’s not just an interesting character, is it? It’s finding out what happens to that character.

Wait, you say. Who cares what happens to a forgettable character? An excellent question with an obvious answer—the forgettable character’s mother and no one else. That is, if the forgettable character has a mother, and she may not. One of the reasons characters end up being forgettable is that they lack a family history. Why? Because they arrive on the page without a background or a backstory. But more about that in a minute.

Planner versus pantser

Read a few articles on writing book-length fiction in Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, and The Writer or browse the discussion boards for Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), and you are bound to encounter the terms planner and pantser. These terms refer to two different approaches to writing a rough draft. Planners, well, they plan obviously, and pantsers make it up (by the seat of their pants) as they go along.

I don’t know who came up with these terms, but they are cringe-worthy. Planner sounds like plodder. I imagine a slow, methodical, cautious writer, someone conservative and anal-retentive. And pantser sounds like prancer, which conjures up a free spirit dancing her way through the writing process, waving scarves, no less. I do not identify with or endorse either approach. Too much planning discourages serendipity and inspiration. It’s deadening to the spirit, or so it seems to me. Too little (or, shudder, none at all) results in a muddled, meandering draft.

Character + Plot

Okay. I’ve been hedging on which comes first, plot or character. Honestly, you can’t divorce one from the other.

Have you ever heard the phrase “character is destiny”? It is attributed to Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who must have been a keen observer of human nature. Thousands of years before the advent of psychology, Heraclitus asserted that one’s inner life manifests in one’s outer life. Put another way, it is not so much what happens to us as it is how we react to what happens to us. And because life gets complicated fast, so does fiction. Even in the most mundane situations, we have choices, lots of them, and how we react affects our destinies, sometimes by inches and other times by miles.

The example I’ll offer is one I use often because it’s so ordinary—and we’ve all been there. Picture it: you have stopped off at the grocery store on your way home from work. You are waiting your turn with the cashier even as you juggle the makings of dinner: a boxed frozen pizza, a bag of mixed greens, and a cucumber. That’s not all. Wedged into your armpit is a slippery bottle of pinot noir. You’re nearly at the front of the line when abruptly, and without a glance in your direction, a wiry man with a jar of pickles sidles in front of you. It’s blatant—he’s cutting in line. What are you going to do about it?

Surprisingly, there are numerous ways to react, and among them is my husband’s likely response: Tap the guy on the shoulder and firmly advise him to get to the back of the line. My late mother-in-law would have been subtler. She would have turned to the person behind her and complained loudly about the rudeness of “some people.” Lots of us would suffer in silence; others would be too engrossed in their phones to notice the intrusion. Someone out there might draw a gun, and at least one frazzled young mother would burst into tears.

Writing the Novella by Sharon Oard Warner

Think about it: Unless you have real insight into your fictional characters, you don’t know how they will react in even the most mundane of circumstances, and without that knowledge, you aren’t ready to plan or pants your plot. The answer isn’t simple, but that’s life—and fiction.

Note from Jane: if you enjoyed this post, check out Sharon’s new book Writing the Novella.

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