Thursday, June 18, 2009

Character or Plot?

One week each year, I travel to Daytona Beach, Fla. to score Advanced Placement essays with several hundred of my closest fellow composition instructors. It’s always a great week, an annual reminder of how talented some of our high school writers are and, on the heels of a long school year, a slap-on-the-head wakeup call as to why I teach. After all, as an English teacher/writer, I’m like a missionary spreading the Good (literary arts) News: To quote Prince Hamlet, it’s all about “words, words, words.”

But this year, a fellow teacher’s remark got me thinking. He was holding one of my novels and asked if my five books featured the same protagonist. I said yes and explained that it was a series, that I’m a crime writer.

A look of recognition flashed. Ah, yes. “What’s your formula?” he said.

Fingernails on a chalkboard.

“No formula,” I said.

No offense was intended. My career in academia has included teaching at the collegiate level. So, believe me, I know literary snobbery when I see it. Rather, his comment led to a discussion of the age-old question: Which comes first, character or plot? The answer probably depends on the writer. My method lies in the answer I gave my colleague, “I didn’t know how the book you are holding would end until I was thirty pages away.”

He was flabbergasted. How could that be? Agatha Christie wrote her books backwards, last chapter first and so on. What if you can’t figure out how it will end?

“Isn’t that terrifying?” he said.

Yes, it can be. But I enjoy dropping characters in a dense forest of emotional and/or physical strife and watching them search for a way out. And there is always an end—if I’m smart enough to see it. Usually, I just need patience and revision. What it comes down to is that character always comes first; plot is a very distant second. Plot can only be the result of character, because setting and action depend on a character’s skill set, intellect, and life situation, which combine to create a one’s personality. And personality is character.

Thus, character always comes before plot, even in seemingly “plot-driven” fiction. Take Stephen King or Dan Brown, for example. If I don’t care about, or relate to, or believe, the characterization—if they’re not real to me; if I have no emotional connection and investment in them—I’m not scared when reading a King book, or I don’t follow Robert Langdon to Kingdom Come and back chasing the mythological cup.

So, for me, it’s always character first.


Vicki Delany said...

One can add setting. In my Klondike books, setting definately came first. The Klondike gold rush. Then I created characters and only then did I give them a plot to follow.


I agree. As in life, the people in my books and stories grow and develop as the direct result of what life throws at them. Since I don't have a crystal ball in real life, I don't allow my fictional characters one, either.

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