What Should Come First – Plot Or Characters?

Writing is an art form; there’s no set pattern, there’s no uniform way something must be done and no specific brush strokes to do, which is why this question causes confusion among writers who are unsure of themselves when it comes to putting a story together.
Convention would have us believe that plot must come first, especially as the story idea almost always comes first. But sometimes the writer has a specific character in mind – usually a strong character who wants to be heard, whose personality is that strong and the story is often constructed around the character, rather than constructing characters around a story idea.
Plot First Approach
This is a little more complex in structure than the character first approach. Authors who have a strong story idea will work on it to expand the themes and the story arc, together with subplots and different scenarios. They ensure that it is mapped from start to finish. They know what will happen, the kind of obstacles the main character will face; they have an idea of the ending and what the story means to the reader; what it’s trying to say.
The characters are drawn from the plot; they emerge from the synthesis of the story to form part of the story structure, but the plot is always the main focus. The story, therefore, is paramount – the characters are simply tools that the author uses to tell that story. This is the basis of plot driven stories.
From the plot, all characters develop around it. Character growth comes with the advancement of the story and often it has a direct influence on how they act and react.
This plot first approach is easier to work with, simply because all the elements required to tell the story are there – plot points, obstacles, major incidents, high stakes, ultimate goal, themes to explore, plot twists and sub plots. The author knows where he or she is going and can therefore anticipate flaws and address issues and mistakes.
Almost all stories develop this way – we have an idea, we construct the story around that idea and we conjure the characters that will help us tell the story.
Character First Approach
This approach is less easy to work with. Creating a character before there is any plot or story ideas means the writer has to work hard to create a story that fits the character without overpowering the character development. Often this is a character driven story that has a strong emotional theme and purpose, but the story takes ends up taking a backseat. And because the characters came first, the plot is less complex than it would be if it were a plot driven story.
The downside to this approach is that while characters have been fully drawn and are wonderfully real, the story isn’t, so the story arc is left undeveloped. That means all the plot points, possible sub plots, themes, goals etc., don’t get the same attention, and without full story development, the author may not know where the story is actually heading. They have to constantly keep constructing things around the characters, which can be troublesome, because what characters do within the story can also alter the story arc. Without a planned plot, the characters can take over, and the meaning of the story could be lost.
This is why it’s much harder to maintain character driven stories. That’s not to say writers should avoid this approach. Many writers prefer to work in this way; however, to avoid losing the meaning of the story, or the extra work trying to make the story fit the characters; it may be worth doing some story planning with the characters so there is at least a foundation from which to work.
In order to do that, you have to know the following:

  1. What is your character’s ultimate goal?
  2. How will he/she achieve this?
  3. Who or what stands in their way?
  4. Who will help this character? Who will prove a nuisance to this character?
  5. What is at stake?
  6. What themes are there?
  7. How will the story end? Who will profit from the outcome?
  8. What will the reader gain from the story?
Motivation, deep emotional development and strong characters are the stable of character first writing, which is why some character driven literary novels are classics, but writers shouldn’t neglect the story, even if it has to be constructed around the characters. That way you avoid some of these pitfalls.

So, what should come first - characters or plot? It doesn’t really matter, as long as you invest in the story. You may have thought up the most brilliant character, but without a story, there is no point, because the character must have a reason to be there, to exist in the first place. And they can’t do that without a plot.
Whichever approach you choose, ensure there is a cohesive, developed story to tell.

Next week: How to include themes in stories


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