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

“Hello! Egg People!”

Last week, we discussed the “proper” way to begin crafting your novel. In my opinion, the best creative process is the one that best works with the way your mind operates. You can read books on writing until the cows come home, attend workshops, read articles, but the best method to approaching the creative process is going to be one that works in tandem with your preferences. Trying to emulate what works for others will only take you so far.

In Bob’s Warrior Writer Workshops, he makes attendees spend time getting to know themselves. Really, really know with brutal honesty. For those who might like to do a lot of this intense self-therapy, I recommend Bob’s Who Dares Wins (www.bobmayer.org). Learn about your strengths, weaknesses, fears, etc. all of which drive or sabotage your creative energy.

And this blog is partly about you getting to know YOU. So last week, we talked about what I called “Chicken People” or “Character Writers.” I am definitely among the Chicken People. I always begin with a character in mind, and I don’t care what the story is, so long as it works with THAT particular character. This latest book I am working on has the badass female action hero. I could have cared less if she was battling Al-Qaeda, Russians, or the Asian mob so long as she got to kick ass and chew bubblegum (…and she’s fresh out of bubble gum).

But I’d always had trouble with plot. Bob helped me understand why. My mind needed to know, really, really, really know the cast before I could even begin to wrap my mind around my plot. Bob made me get to know my characters first. And I cried and moaned and groaned because I wanted a conflict lock. I wanted him to teach me a super-duper way of outlining. I wanted my outline, my organized story, gosh darn it. But, in retrospect, I now realize that Bob could talk to me for five minutes and know I was not an “Egg Person” and beginning with plot would be a waste of time. He was correct.

But what about the other side? We have talked about character writers (scroll down to last week’s blog if you missed it), but what about plot-writers?

One of our Warrior Writer Boot Camp authors is a huge WWI buff (Hey Nigel!). He knows everything there is to know about WWI. He has the story he wants to tell, but needs help when it comes to casting.  He is a “Plot Writer”—yes, one of the “Egg People.”

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 he/she is strongest.  In WWBC, the plot-writer’s process looks a bit like this:

EGG PEOPLE—For Those Who are Strong at Plot

  1. Original idea—get at the very least an idea of the story you would like to write. Most plot people have this down pat, but still a good idea to write this down first. Are you writing a thriller? A mystery? Chick lit? YA?
  2. 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/ 

Also, keep your plot simple. Conflict is not complexity. There are only so many plots, no matter what anyone says. As an editor for many years, I always have new writers who feel like they have written something entirely new. Um…no. Sorry. Nothing new.

 Think about it this way, in mathematics, what numbers do we have to work with? 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. That’s it. No “new” numbers. Now, the combinations and applications of these digits are limitless. Same thing with writing. Like our number pals here, there are only so many plots. Plot is not where you will be unique. If your plot can’t be paralleled to a biblical story or Shakespeare, you have a problem.

 That’s why Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet could be so easily made into modern day renditions. People don’t change. Human drama is immutable. It will be in character and how YOU go about your plot that will make your story unique.

 There is some debate how many basic plots there are, but here is a good site that discusses all the theories and it might help give some clarity.


 Keep plot simple. Simple clear conflict.

 3.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.

 To use last week’s example. 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.

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 http://fiction-plots-pacing.suite101.com/article.cfm/how_to_plot_a_novel_for_beginners_in_writing

4.  Now that you have a pretty good structure in place, NOW you need to go about casting this drama. Looking at the story you have created, who will be best for each role? For instance, we likely would not cast Hannah Montana in a “Silence of the Lambs” type of movie (no matter how much we’d like to, :)). There are certain personalities and images that go well with different roles in a book…just like in a movie. And ideally, make your characters unique so they are more easily made distinctive in the reader’s mind.

 5.  Get an idea of supporting cast members—mentors, minions, allies, love interests. You know your plot, so get at least a basic idea when it comes to your story’s supporting cast.

 6.  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). And since you already have your story framed out, this step should be easy.

 7.  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. Remember, plot writers have already gotten an idea of the story so this part should be relatively simple.

8. Refer to Bob Mayer’s Novel Writers Toolkit for the character template. Take all these characters (your rough ideas) and use Bob’s tools to help flesh them out and make them multi-dimensional. Make sure they fit well with your story. I recommend John Douglas’s Mind Hunter and Anatomy of Motive. Knowledge of psychology will be extremely helpful with all your characters. The BAU capitalizes on this to profile criminals. Why? Because behavior tells a lot about psychology. Make sure your characters’ actions are congruent with who they are.

9. Get feedback from others. A writing partner or writing group. Do your characters make sense? Do they have the ability to emotionally resonate, or are they one-dimensional caricatures? Are your characters flawed in a good way or are they TDTL (Too Dumb to Live)?

We recently had a writer who wanted a conniving money-laundering mogul who ran all the booze and casinos. But in the character background he wrote, this antagonist was a brutal rapist who liked to rape and chop up women. His string of killings propelled him to move West. BIG problem! The psychological profile of a misogynistic sadist who ritually rapes and kills women is not even remotely congruent with the antagonist he needed for his story. He needed Al Swearengen from Deadwood NOT Ted Bundy.  He created a good antagonist, just not a good one for his story.

Your fellow writers see your work from a distant perspective, and they are less emotionally attached to it. Their feedback can be priceless.

If after these two blogs, you are still unsure whether you are a character writer or a plot writer, I suggest try both ways and see if one feels better than the other. Regardless what you do, make sure your approach is the best fit so as to make the most of your creative potential.

Good luck and happy writing.

Until next time…

Sign up for a Warrior Writer Workshop today! Now offered on-line. Bob teaches writers how to become authors with his innovative workshop designed to take you and your writing to a whole new level. www.bobmayer.org

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