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.

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