Which comes first – the characters or the plot?

9 Jun

Most of the time, they ‘hatch’ simultaneously, which is most likely what prompted you to want to write the book. You sit down and start writing, and then to your absolute amazement one of any number of things can happen.
1. You get stuck because your characters don’t know what to do with themselves, and won’t cooperate with your master plan.
2. The characters come to life and decide to tell their own story, paying absolutely no attention to you – their creator! Generally, when this happens, you should let them do pretty much as they wish – it means they know themselves better than you do. Or did. Or thought you did!
3. The plot cranks along for a while, then dies. And you don’t know what to do with or about it, because the characters won’t help you figure it out.
4. A character you’d never even considered suddenly takes over the entire story, pushing your original main characters right under a bus. Now what? This isn’t what you planned, at all!

Help!? Now what do you do?

Well, most of the above problems can be avoided, but probably not all of them all the time. However, if you truly know your characters, you won’t try to put them in the wrong story, which is a good place to begin. One useful way to learn more about your characters is to fill out a résumé for them – at least for the more important ones. Or – pretend you’re an interviewer for a dating service. It’s your job to weasel out as much useful information as possible from this person sitting across the table from you. You can’t find their perfect match unless you know every single thing about that person. So —
First, create a physical description of this character as you see him/her so that someone else has a quick mental picture.

Name: (including nick-names, and explanation for any kind of special name.)
Address: (maybe you don’t need this specific information for the book, exactly, but knowing where they live, what type of house [apartment, hotel, single home, mobile home] can tell you a lot about them.)
Date & Place of Birth:
Height/Weight/Physical Description:
Citizenship/Ethnic Origin:
Parents’ names & occupations:
Other family members:
Spouse or lover:
Friends’ names & occupations:
Social class:
Education:
Occupation/Employer:
Social class:
Salary:
Community status:
Job-related skills:
Political beliefs/affiliations:
Hobbies/Recreations:
Personal qualities (imagination, taste, etc.):
Driving passion:
Ambitions:
Fears/anxieties/hangups:
Intelligence:
Sense of humor:
Happiest memory:
Biggest disappointment:
Health/physical condition/distinguishing marks/disabilities:
Sexual orientation/experience/values:
Tastes in food, drink, art, music, literature, decor, clothing:
Attitude toward life:
Attitude toward death:
Philosophy of Life (in a phrase):

You may not use all this information, and you may want to add categories of your own, but a résumé certainly helps make your character come alive in your own mind.
Main characters are larger than life. Secondary may be important but not in the same way. They can’t be all bad or all good; they’re a mixture just like all humans are. They have weaknesses and make mistakes. Be sure to give them little HUMAN flaws. No one wants to read (always and only) about the most beautiful, richest, baddest person out there. People don’t live that life—they only dream it. Remember the old saying –

Life Happens. To the best of us!
If your character does that to you – hang on and enjoy the ride! You won’t soon forget it, and neither will your readers.

We’ll start on plot next time. But until then — how are you doing? Making progress? If you have questions or comments, please write to me at: bookmechanic@gmail.com

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One Response to “Which comes first – the characters or the plot?”

  1. Kay Blevins June 9, 2010 at 9:53 pm #

    I love the idea of a character resume’ big time. And, yes, I can see referring back to it as memory doesn’t serve as well as it used to do!

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