Writing a Novel–Plot or Character? Which Comes First?


What comes first? Plot or character? Ah the famous “Chicken and the Egg” enigma. Can a story survive being weak on either? Sure. But, in order to write a truly great novel, both plot and character are essential. Last summer, Bob held his very first Warrior Writer Workshop here in Dallas, Texas. Many members of my writing group attended the Novel Writers’ Workshop he often gives the day before (and I have to say for those who have not attended…you only think you can write, and then Bob Mayer gets a hold of you).

Using his Who Dares Wins principles, Bob forced each of us into the areas we protected the most, and made us address our writing weaknesses. Not an easy thing to do. I always liked creating characters and writing dialogue. Why? Because that is where I shine. But wanna make me scream like a little girl? Make me write an outline. Thus, after two days of hard training, it became clear to me and some of the other attendees that we needed a totally different kind of writing group. The traditional critique group gravitated toward thinking in a microcosm and was a vastly inadequate for framing a literary structure capable of supporting a story that eventually would span from 70-111,000 words. Also, Bob had pushed us to address where we were weak. Awesome for a weekend, but what about the long haul? We needed accountability and a place where we could “work out” weekly and strengthen those weak writing muscles. And since Bob refused to let us all come and live with him, Warrior Writer Boot Camp was born.

The past several months have taught us quite a lot. One thing is for certain. None of us will ever return to the traditional critique group. But, since this was such an innovative approach, it has had its share of bugs and kinks that we never could have anticipated. The plot vs. character question has been one of those bumps in the road, and it has taken almost eight months to get past it and gather momentum.

What we have learned…

Character is important. Most readers will forgive minor problems with the plot if the characters truly resonate. Think about it. People you “connect” with on some level tend to get more leeway even in your personal life…but there is a flakiness limit. Cast awesome characters in a pointless story that drifts here and there, and roams down one bunny trail after another and  this “story flakiness” will quickly frustrate a reader.

Plot is essential. But, without characters that will resonate, one risks the reader ultimately losing interest in the work because of the lack of emotional connection. Humans are not robots. We are driven by emotions. A story can survive with carbon-copy characters, but it likely will not be memorable.

So when beginning a novel, which comes first? Plot or character? Well, we are still sorting through that. In Warrior Writer Boot Camp, we require that the writer start where they are strongest. And to minimize the length of today’s blog, we will address CHARACTER (The Chicken) first. The process looks a bit like this:

CHICKEN PEOPLE—For Those Who are Strong at Character

***I recommend using Bob Mayer’s Novel Writers Toolkit for a good character template.

1. Original idea—get at the very least an idea of the story you would like to write. Thriller? Suspense? Romance? YA? Is it a vampire story? A spy story? A love story? A spy-vampire-love story? This will give you the first impression of the characters you will need. You can’t cast actors for a movie if you don’t know what the movie is about. You wouldn’t likely put Jack Nicholson in a children’s movie, but he would be perfect in a psychological thriller. Ben Stiller would be great in a comedy, but we would have a hard time taking him seriously in a dramatic film. You get the idea. So what book (movie) do you want to write? Write it down and REMEMBER IT. It is very easy to listen to feedback and edit, edit, edit and then lose the original story you wanted to write in the first place.

 2. Create your bad guy/girl antagonist. Who is he/she? What does she want? What is her endgame? Remember, your protagonist will have a happy-happy-joy-joy life if the antagonist dies at birth. The antagonist drives the story, so I recommend figuring him or her out first. And make their goal interesting (not complicated).

 3.  Create your protagonist. Who will be perfect for taking down your antagonist? The protagonist has to be inherently good or have good qualities (even anti-heroes—we desire their redemption for a reason), and she will have to be flawed in the beginning. Why? Because if your protagonist was perfect in the beginning, then she could take out the bad guy right away. Makes for a super short novel.

 4.  Get an idea of supporting cast members—mentors, minions, allies, love interests. Don’t get too bogged down with supplemental characters. Plot likely will change them. But, it is a good idea to have at least an idea of the supporting cast.

 5.  Begin constructing your plot. First, what is the inciting incident? What one thing puts Joe Schmoe in direct conflict with your antagonist? A REAL antagonist. Not war or a storm or fascism or even global warming. A REAL antagonist, literary flesh and blood. For those who desire more insight into the antagonist, I suggest an earlier blog on this exact topic, “Beyond Bastards, Bullies, and Bad Girls—Understanding the Antagonist.” http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/beyond-bastards-bullies-and-bad-girls/

 6. Create your ending. Seems counterintuitive, but your ending is the question that the entire story is designed to answer. How does your protagonist eventually triumph over your antagonist? Answer this and the plot will fall into place MUCH easier. If you know Joe Schmoe will beat Drake Dashing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and save the rare Tse-Tse Monkeys from being slaughtered, then back-tracking the plot becomes easier. If the story ends with Joe at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tse-Tse Monkey in hand, then the plot is going to have to somehow get Joe Schmoe from his job shoveling Orangutan poo at the Brooklyn Zoo to Tanzania saving rare Tse-Tse Monkeys in a logical fashion.

 7. Now that you are working backwards, start fleshing out the plot. Refer to Bob’s Novel Writers Toolkit for a novel template, and he can help you frame this original idea onto a structure. I also highly, highly, highly recommend Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure. Basically, and there are dramatic variations, most novels will fall into the three act structure. Here are two nice blogs for further explication, but, in my humble opinion, the two books I suggested are invaluable and should be in every writer’s library. http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Structure&Plot.htm


8.  Get feedback from others. A writing partner or group. Does your plot make sense? Or does it rely on author intrusion and massive coincidence that will likely make the reader hate you? Yes, Joe Schmoe could logically win the NY State Power Ball Lottery and then set out for Africa to realize his life-long dream of saving the rare Tse-Tse Monkeys…but that’s pushing it, and frankly, not that interesting. Maybe your writer pals could be more inventive. Maybe Joe Schmoe could be selected by Drake Dashing (antagonist) to come along on an expedition to Tanzania as the official Monkey Poo Shoveler. Joe rises from poo shoveler to hero, by discovering then foiling Drake Dashing’s plan to make his fortune from Tse-Tse Monkey hand puppets. And yes, I am being a little silly, but your fellow writers see your work from a distant perspective, and they are less emotionally attached to it. Their feedback can be priceless.

So today we have dealt with Chicken People—Those Who Are Strong at Character. I know all of you Chicken People will have a blast creating your cast using Bob’s character template. Hopefully, you will put this fantastic cast to better use now that you have tools to keep them on track and in their place.

For Egg People—Those Who Are Strong at Plot, we serve you up next week, ;).

Until then…

 Go to bob@bobmayer.org for a copy of The Novel Writers Toolkit or to sign up for a workshop near you. Bob now offers on-line Warrior Writer training, so sign up today!


1 ping

  1. I put this at the end of my blog post last week as a joke:
    Next Week: How the Chicken vs. Egg riddle applies to Character Development.

    But after reading your blog, I realize that this metaphor actual works.

    • jwrichardson on February 25, 2010 at 5:47 pm
    • Reply

    My thoughts on the chicken-egg conundrum and plot-character question are the same: Maybe they arrive together, out of necessity, because one can’t really live without the other.

    I think this is a point you make in the subtext of your post, but, you know, why accept subtle and effective writing when I can belabor a point in the comments section, thereby avoiding working on a troubling chapter?

    Right. So. Would the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes shine without the title character? Of course not. You might have clever mysteries without Holmes, but you would have excised the soul from the story. Likewise, if you’d dropped Holmes at County General Hospital, he may have been a brilliant surgeon, but absent Watson, and London, and criminals, and all the pinnings, he wouldn’t have been Sherlock.

    In some ways, I think fiction is very much like real life. People are shaped by setting, and setting shaped by people. There’s a push-pull process, a dance, in both fiction and life, that doesn’t exist if you remove one of the steps.

    Plot forms character, and character shapes plot, in the imagination and on the page, until they are fully formed.

    No chicks without eggs. No eggs without a hen to hatch.

    The Novel Writers’ Workshop sounds absolutely awesome. Another “Argh, wish I’d been there for that!” moment. Thanks for another timely and thoughtful post.

  1. […] Plot or Character? Which comes First? […]

I LOVE hearing your thoughts!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.