Which Came First: The Character or the Plot?

Oh, the age-old question . . . or something like that.

When you started your fiction work-in-progress, did you begin with your character? Or your plot? Maybe both? My forthcoming novel, Bobbing for Watermelons, began with a quirky housewife and I left the rest up to her. “Do your thing, you crazy lady. Make a story.” From there, I wrote the book chapter by chapter, with no road map or compass. I was having fun putting her in sticky situations, but where was it going? If I wasn’t careful, her antics would wear thin with the reader. I quickly learned that characters need direction—a place to “do their thing.” Fortunately, I got it together and gave my character a path to follow in a fun world I created just for her. 

Conversely, if you’ve come up with a unique plot with twists, turns, and an ending that kicks ass, do you have enough left in you to create a memorable character who’s thrown into your well-thought out story? For another novel I started working on last year, I came up with the plot first and my characters last, who frankly, are as boring as watching golf. (Yes, I said that, and yes, I meant it.)

Based on my own experiences, I’m theorizing that the first born tends to be stronger. It used to be we heard the terms, “character-driven,” and “plot-driven,” when it came to books. Perhaps we still do, but it seems to me, readers want both, and why should’t they? Some believe plot is more important in an action-packed thriller (who cares if the guy in the midst of the action hasn’t an emotional marble in his head, he sure looks good in a suit). He’s only there to carry out the action, right? 

Well, I’m no expert, but I’m getting the feeling that readers want it all: character and plot, packaged together and wrapped with pretty paper. Quality writing notwithstanding. (That’s another blog post.) So,what’s the point of all this? I’m not entirely sure, but I’d like to know which came first for you: the character or the plot and is it stronger than the other? 


4 thoughts on “Which Came First: The Character or the Plot?

  1. April Moore

    It’s like you have to follow your characters around with a pen and paper, hoping to catch what comes out of their mouths. Funny how you came across the fisherman fitting the description . . . coincidence? Hmmm … I think not. The writing gods threw you some bait and you bit.

    1. Jerry

      To me, and talking more about single essays than books, the title pops out first. I suppose that leaves me great latitude as to what to put in there. But the title just stands there, loosely framing a holistic concept and then I fill in the frame with words. For example, most recently, I read “The Shallows,” ended up wondering how a university professor could function in that projected new digitized universe, and the title, “Beyond The Shallows” just hit me. My essay of that title is being critiqued now and is ultimately headed for a larger semi-academic audience.

      1. April J. Moore

        First, I’m sorry I just saw your comment, Jerry! It had gone to spam…how could anyone think you’re spam?! Second, thanks for commenting. I never thought of the title coming first, but the more I think about it, the more I can see how it can inspire a whole heck of a lot. Keep me posted on your essay!

  2. Dean K Miller

    My novel came plot first, or at least situation/scene first. Immediately following that revelation, I had one of the two MC’s introduce himself. Strangely enough, a week later while fly fishing I met another fisherman who was the physical personification of the MC of my story. From there the other characters introduced themselves and the story unfolded into an immense saga that I am still struggling to get my arms around. Oh the lives they lead, but I couldn’t keep them corralled as they’d shut up when I tried, so I let them roam. The journey continues.


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