What Comes First, Character or Story?

Yes. On to the next blog post.

Okay, I’ll expand. This is a question that keeps being asked of writers over and over again. There is no easy answer. I think it depends on the writer and the inspiration. Art Holcome, in a GLAWS Special Speaker Event, approached the question this way: For every story, there is a best character to tell it. That character is the one that bests answers the central question to the story. Sometimes it may not be the obvious choice.

Say you are writing a detective story. The obvious choice would be the detective in charge. But maybe he isn’t the best choice, maybe it’s his quirky sidekick. Let’s say the theme of the story is horrors humans can inflict on other humans. The detective is a seasoned professional. He’s seen it all. He’s learned to keep his personal feelings and job separated. He’s not moved so much by what he sees on the job. The sidekick, however, is not so seasoned. Things he sees on the job upset him on a personal level. He has nightmares. He can’t sleep. He can’t believe people can be so cruel to each other. He is the character that is going to grow from this experience. Maybe he will learn to separate his feeling from his job. He might finally get that promotion he’s been wanting. Maybe he’ll just stop having nightmares. Or maybe he’ll find he’s really in the wrong line of work and find some other way to help others. One way or another, he will change. To the detective, it’s just another case.

Another way Art Holcome puts it is, who is the character you can torture the most? Who is the character who will suffer the most from the events in the story and will therefore have to change the most? The satisfaction in a story is in watching a character grow and learn.

But sometimes, you come up with a character first. Writer Christine Conradt spoke about that approach. She said if you start with the plot, there is only one way it can go. But if you start with a character, you can think of dozens of different situations to put that character in. If you start with a unique, original character, then it’s your job to find the best story to show off their uniqueness.

Sound familiar? It’s the way TV shows are created. You start out with a cast of characters that are going to be there throughout the season, but the plot is going to be different every week. You need the audience to fall in love with the characters. If they don’t, they won’t care what next week’s plot is.

Finally, there is the view that plot and character are two sides of the same coin. What you character experiences and what decisions they make drive the direction of the plot. And the plot drives your character to different experiences and decisions they have to make. In the end, no matter which you start with, the two will become intertwined. And the journey of your character will determine the destination of the plot.

Perfecting Your Premise

Back in September of last year, GLAWS’ monthly speaker event featured writer Art Holcomb.  Mr. Holcomb has been a writer for fourty five years working in film, television, theater and comic books. The topic of this event:  Perfecting Your Premise in Ten Solid Steps.  Here is an outline from my notes of that meeting

  1. Find something only you can write.  This means something from your unique perspective, knowledge or insight.  Most stories fail right at this level.  Hollywood wants something unique.  They don’t want another Harry Potter unless it’s written by J. K. Rowling.
  2. Mine all the possibilities that you can out of your idea.  Figure out what it is that you have.  Is it a movie, novel or television series?  Each medium has its limitations and strengths.  And writing in each medium requires different skill sets.  Whatever it is you have, you must have the matching skill set for it.  If you don’t, set it aside for now.  Just because you don’t have a certain skill set now, doesn’t mean you won’t have it in the future.
  3. What is the design principle of the model?  Each genre has its rules.  For example, a mystery is search for the truth.  Horror is about defeating a monster, and often defining what is human and what is not.  Science fiction is about creating a better world – and often how that can go wrong.  But all stories must answer the following questions:  Who am I?  Why am I here? And what happens next?
  4. What do you get first, story or character?  For every story there is a best character to tell it.  Which character is best suited to answer the central question?  Or as Art Holcomb put it, what character can you torture the most?  The satisfaction in a story is in watching your character grow and learn.  You want your character to get to the “I can’t, but I must” moment.
  5. Stories are about conflict.  What is the central conflict of the story?  Conflict is the clenching and releasing of tension.  Conflict is the vehicle of the story.
  6. Single cause and effect pathway.  You have to be able to see what the character goes through and where it will end.  Plot is the skeleton of the story.  Story is everything else on it.
  7. The single most important part of the story is the change in your character.   A writer pulls away all the layers until the true character is revealed.  Only when your character is the most vulnerable is he the most powerful.  Your character has to be a martyr at the end.  “I don’t care what happens, I have to do what is right.”
  8. The character must make a moral choice.  That is you as the writer talking through your character.
  9. Is your character appealing?  A relatable character is not 100% perfect.  Not 100% good or 100% evil.  Make them quirky.  Make them strange.  Everyone has an irrational fear.  Give your character one.
  10. Send your work out.  This is probably the most important one and the one that takes the most courage.  Your work doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t send it out to an agent, editor, publisher or studio.  Your success as a writer depends on your body of work, not a single story.  What one agent doesn’t like, another one might.  And if an agent does like one of your works, he may ask the golden question, “What else do you have?”  You should always have at least three stories:  One completed, one in the works and the idea for your next story.

How does your story stand up to these guidelines?