When you’re writing fiction, should you begin by creating characters, or should you concentrate on your plot? Authors tend to go back and forth on this. You can do either one:
- Perhaps you’re inspired by a character, or…
- You’re intrigued by something and want to write about it.
I’ve been coaching a self-publishing author. She’s upset because she received unkind Amazon reviews slamming her latest novel. Reviewers mentioned cardboard and TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) characters.
The author’s decided that with her current novel, she wants to focus on creating great characters first, then worry about the novel’s plot later. Unfortunately however, you can’t separate the two; characters and plot go together.
Writing fiction: characters or plot?
Mystery editor Barbara Norville suggested:
“Whether you kick off with a character you like or with a plot idea that strikes a chord depends on the kind of person you are: people-oriented or idea oriented.”
I tend to go back and forth. If I’m writing a novel which is part of a series, I know that I’ll be writing about characters A, B, C, and D. I know I’ll need a plot for each novel which grows from that character’s problem and situation.
It’s best to be flexible: follow your intuition. You’ll change your mind many times while you’re planning, writing, and revising, and that’s OK.
Be flexible: allow yourself to follow your intuition, BUT… write your blurb first
We talked about starting a novel with your blurb, because:
Your blurb answers the “why?” question for readers (and for you)…
When he sees your book’s cover on Amazon, your reader is asking himself: why? Why would I read this book?
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on an idea for a new series for one of my pen names. I adore the idea; the over-arching plot arc will easily extend across four books.
My heroine’s character arc will stretch over four novels too, but as soon as I started the first novel, I realized I had too much plot for that novel. Not only was I setting up the series in the first novel, I had that novel’s plot arc as well.
My solution: ditch most of the series-setup. A tip: if you ever find yourself wanting a shoe-horn lots of background and information: don’t. Focus on the story. Your story comes first.
Allow readers to get to know your main character
Give readers time to get to know your characters. Fiction isn’t real life: unlike reality, it has to make sense. Kick off the main events of your novel too soon, and you risk developing “cardboard” characters.
So, in most novels, you’ll devote the first 25% of the novel to the Setup phase: you’re setting up the characters and the situation of the novel. Readers meet your main character in his everyday life. With luck, they’ll empathize with the character.
That’s all well and good, but this strategy presents its own problems. You risk the David Copperfield effect. Here’s the first line of Dickens’ novel:
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
In other words, start too slowly, and you’ll lose readers.
Avoid the David Copperfield effect: dramatize your scenes
To avoid boring and losing readers when you’re writing fiction, combine character development with drama in your early scenes.
Many bestselling authors manage this brilliantly. Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, and John Sandford come to mind.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips does it well too. I’m currently rereading her novel, Natural Born Charmer. Hop onto Amazon and use Look Inside to read the first scene. Not only does Ms Phillips characterize the novel’s two main characters brilliantly, the scene is also dramatic… And it’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read.
So, characters first, or plot first?
You need both. Before you start writing however, remember to develop your blurb.
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Updated: May 13, 2021
Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.