Plot First versus Character First is another style preference for writers. When you first come up with a story idea, what do you think of first? Do you think of all the epic plot twists and intrigue, or do you think of the complexity of your main character, with his backstory and his favorite music and his hopes and dreams?
Where you start in your creation process is usually indicative of what type of writer you are. If you tend to write really deep, complex characters, and then figure out a plot around them in order for them to have something to do, you’re probably a character-first writer.
If, on the other hand, you start with an idea for a scene or a plot twist or a concept and then have to come up with characters to play the parts, you’re probably a plot-first writer.
Again, there is no right way or wrong way to start out. Your natural tendencies are often your greatest strengths, so it’s a great jumping-off point to start where your inclinations lead.
However, as with most things, the easiest thing to do is what you already know how to do, so plot-first writers tend to develop ever more engaging plots, but end up with flat, uninteresting characters who don’t grow or change over the course of the story, while character-first writers tend to have deeply developed and relatable characters who wander aimlessly along the pages of the book without really doing or accomplishing anything.
The best stories have a balance of both plot and character. So, whichever way you tend toward naturally, it is essential to learn the opposite.
There are many great writing craft books on both subjects, so I won’t go into great detail here, but here are some of the basics.
Your plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is sometimes referred to as the “Three Act Structure,” but there are variations on the theme and some methods have more parts to them. However, this basic principle of beginning, middle, and end is fairly universal.
The beginning is where you introduce your character and the goal your character is trying to reach. In Miss Congeniality, the goal is to stop the bomber who is threatening the pageant. So, in the beginning we are introduced to the FBI agent and we see the ultimate goal—stopping the bomber.
The middle is where the bulk of your story takes place. This is where the plot takes shape. Something has to happen. There needs to be some sort of obstacle that the hero must overcome.
Obviously, the plot depends largely on what genre you’re writing in, but all stories must have some sort of conflict. Conflict is what drives a story. If it’s a romance, then there must be some factor (or multiple factors) that keep the heroine from the hero. In a sci-fi story, the spaceship could have mechanical failures that keep the hero from reaching his destination, or the ship might be taken over by hostile aliens. In a suspense or action story, the bad buy might sabotage everything the hero is working toward, and the hero’s life might be in danger.
In the middle of your story, you have all the factors that tie in to prevent your hero from reaching his goal all coming at the hero, one after the other, forcing him to try harder, move faster, do better, and so on, all leading up to the climax.
The climax is the make-it-or-break-it moment, the part that the rest of the story has been leading up to. Will she tell him how she feels or will she chicken out and decide to just be friends? Will he defuse the bomb before it goes off or will he run the other direction and get as far away from the blast as possible? Will she outsmart her attacker and get the upper hand, ultimately defeating him, or will she fail?
Finally, you have the end. This is where the plot is resolved, for better or for worse, and the story is wrapped up.
If you think of your story as a mountain, the beginning is the flat area before you actually begin hiking. The middle is where you start the trek upwards, encountering obstacles and overcoming roadblocks, until you get to the peak. The peak is the climax, where you’ve either made it successfully or where you turn back and decide it’s not worth the effort. Once you reach the peak, then you come down the other side, having successfully completed your quest.
This mountain journey is called the plot arc, and every story must have one. If you are a character-first writer, consider carefully whether your story has all the elements, or whether your character wanders aimlessly around the foothills without ever reaching the peak.
Characters are as diverse as people are. No two look alike. There may be similarities, as in physical attributes, backgrounds, tastes, and so on, but every character is unique. However, bringing those characters to life is not an easy task. Many times, characters on the page react to their situations or let the plot carry them along. Creating a character is creating a person. A person who carries baggage from a past that shapes the way he thinks. A person who has a worldview and a frame of reference for how she interprets her surroundings. A person with a distinct personality who tends toward logic or emotion, who tends to be either more creative or more analytical, who tends to be more shy or more outgoing.
The more deeply you develop your character, the more he or she will behave like a real person, and thus the more relatable he or she will be.
There are many tools you can use to help you with character development. The Meyers-Briggs personality test (or any other personality profile), psychology textbooks, character profile charts, and so on. Understanding people is the key to understanding your characters and why they react the way they do in certain situations.
There are two main things to keep in mind as you develop your character.
The first is consistency. Your character must behave in line with the way you’ve created her, and if she doesn’t, there had better be a good reason for it. For example, if your character is a type-A control freak who organizes her socks and has lists and charts for everything that goes on in her life, then when her artistic, go-with-the-flow friend suggests they drop everything and go on a spontaneous road trip, your character is going to have a very hard time saying yes.
Now, if your story is about your character learning to let go and finding out it’s okay not to be in control all the time, then there has to be a good reason for her to take the step in the first place.
Your reader will know if something your hero does is out of character for them. You can’t have a person who is honest to a fault tell a white lie to save his own skin, and you can’t have a vegan enjoying a nice, juicy burger. Your reader will immediately lose respect for your character, and be upset because “he would never do that!”
The more thought you put into developing your character, her backstory, her personality, and her quirks, the more those elements will bring her to life on the page.
The second thing to remember is that your character must grow or change in some way. The experience of living through the plot must have an impact on his life and choices. It shouldn’t change his personality, it should just help him learn something new and apply it going forward.
This is called the character arc. The character arc doesn’t have to be deep or momentous, but it does have to occur. Your character needs to be able to look back on the events that occurred in the book and see how it had purpose in her life, how she’ll be a little more relaxed, open herself to the unexpected a little more, be a little nicer to those less fortunate, be a little braver in the face of fear, and so on.
Often, the character arc coincides with the plot arc. The two have a symbiotic relationship, and one can’t happen without the other.
The character can’t solve the mystery until he learns to really listen to people, but it’s the act of searching out clues that enables him to listen to the meaning behind the words not just the words themselves so he can really hear, which gives him the facts he needs to put the clues together to solve the mystery.
The plot can also serve as a platform to force change. If your character has a paralyzing fear of heights, then in order to reach the peak and come down the other side of the plot mountain, she will need to climb up the telephone pole despite her fear. The stakes need to be high enough that she has no option but to face her fear, because giving up would have consequences that are even more dire than vertigo that could make her fall to her death.
As I’ve shown, a good story needs a balance between plot and character, and those two elements combine to create an engaging, memorable story. Study both, but spend more time working to develop whichever style is not your natural inclination, in order to create that balance between the two.