What comes first? Character or Plot?

26 Jul

When your short story or novel idea first comes to light in your mind, what started it? A character? Plot? Or a combination of the two? Or something else?

I’ve had all four occur. The origin of my four linked stories in Beyond the Tripping Point – “Gone Missing,” “Saving Grace,” “Digging Up the Dirt” and “Road Raging” was definitely the female private investigator Dana Bowman. Her initial name was “Sheila” but I soon changed that because it was close to my first name, “Sharon.” Dana popped into my head before all these short stories, for a novel (now in a rewrite; it’s a prequel to these short stories). When that happens you have to find your plot. I like to take something that is going on in the world and use that as part of the plot. These stories occur in 1999 (the novel is set in 1998) so it has to be something pertinent to then. For example, there were no Blackberrys, iPhones, or Facebook, but there was the Internet (albeit mostly dial-up) and cell phones. The idea is to connect the “world situation” to the character and develop your plot. And bring in more characters.

If the plot idea occurs first, like it did in my story “No Breaks,” you need to develop the right characters to work your plot. The situation here is what would happen if you are driving along the highway and your brakes fail? And no “breaks” in the title isn’t a misnomer – it has to do with the main character I developed.

As you can see, plot and character are closely connected – the character and his or her traits drive the plot, but the plot also drives the character. What if the character and plot surface at the same time? Then you are truly blessed. However, if you are busy doing something else then, make sure you write the idea down (pen and paper, iPad, etc.) so the plot and character don’t disappear into the nether areas of your mind.

The “something else” is an extension of plot and character coming at you simultaneously. The difference here is you are actually sitting down to write – on paper or at your computer. It is called freefall writing where you start with a word, a phrase, a sentence, a vision, an emotion, a situation (or the start of one) and just sit and write whatever flows from your brain to your hands. You do not stop writing to make changes. This always happens to me when I attend a Brian Henry writing workshop (see Brian gives us a few words, a situation, and gets us writing – then and in our lunch hour. In the afternoon we critique each other’s work. From there we take our story home, finish writing it and revise it. Some of my stories in Beyond the Tripping Point – “For the Love of Wills,” “The Body in the Trunk,” and “Missing in Action” started this way, although I suspect something to do with each was hidden in my brain somewhere. Try it; you might be surprised at the results.


Sharon A. Crawford


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