Characters vs. Plots

I have been browsing through my writing of the past some years. As I re-read those works, I was stuck by a somewhat surprising realization.  The great majority of my writing, both short stories and longer work, began with a character, not a plot.

From conversations with other writers, I gather this is somewhat putting the cart before the horse.   Typically, they begin with a story to tell.  They may have a particular ending they want to achieve.  Sometimes they have a great opening scene that must be developed into a complete story.  But in one fashion or another, by the time they are ready to sit down and begin writing, they have all, or most, of a story arc in their heads or on paper.  Then they develop the characters needed to populate that story.  First, a story that needs telling, then the characters are developed to meet the needs of the story.

I generally go about it exactly backwards.  I find a character first, and then curiosity drives me to discover the story the character has to tell me.

Characters come to me in many different ways.  I might see a face in my mind, a face that holds some particular point of interest.  Perhaps a scar.  How did he get that scar?  A black eye?  What led up to this face wearing a black eye?  A chubby smiling face with a full, snow-white beard.  What story does Santa Claus want to tell me?  Or is he an accountant who is really, really tired of people commenting on his looking like Santa, but doesn’t want to give up the beard because of a promise he made?

I watch people constantly on the street, or in the store.  Often enough someone will stand out in some way, and my imagination will take flight.  That beautiful woman with the very sour expression on her face.  Did she just have a fight with a boy friend, or is she fed up with people assuming that because she is beautiful she lacks a keen and questing mind?

I have started with no more than a name for a character.  Patrick Michael Seamus Condini.  Huh!?!  How did he get that combination of names?  Who is he?  What does he do?  What does he look like?

Once I begin to ask these kinds of questions, the character begins to take shape and becomes an individual, someone unique.  Now I know that Pat Condini is six foot, three inches, built like a pro football linebacker with short, curly, black hair.  Clean shaven, has a small scar over his right eye, and has had his nose broken several times and it shows.  He’s married to a “red-haired, fair-skinned, freckled, Irish beauty, standing five foot nothing on her tippy toes.”  And she takes no nonsense from Pat.  Oh, and his name?  “My father had also married an Irish lass – Irish and Wop is a family tradition.”

From a interesting name a character developed.  Once I had begun to discover just who Pat Condini was, I could sit down, start typing, and let him tell me his story.  It looks like it is going to be a mystery story, and has some potential to be novel length.  I’ve got a pretty good opening chapter,  a fascinating protagonist married to a strong secondary character/foil, an undeveloped villain, a client on a slab in the morgue, and some hints about a secondary mystery plot line.  I’m enjoying following Pat around watching the story develop.

And this is by no means unusual.  This is the way the greatest share of my stories come into existence.  My inspiration is a character.  Once I discover who the character is, once the character becomes a unique individual for me, I can simply let the character speak for himself.  Knowing Pat Condini as I now do, I simply start typing without any real knowledge of what comes next.  Several hundred to a thousand words later, I can look up and go back to read what I have just typed.  Certainly, editing will be necessary.  But I very rarely have to delete such passages because they do not ring true or because they do not advance the story in a logical fashion.

Later, I may have to move passages around.  What once was the heart of chapter five may become the end of chapter three, or perhaps it will be the opening of chapter ten, suitably revised.  But that it strictly editorial revision.  The story, the words of the story, spring from the characters more often than not.  And they do so with what is often very little conscious guidance from me.

Perhaps this is why I struggle with the typical ‘writing prompts’ to be found in so many places.  Usually, such prompts describe a situation, set a scene, provide a plot hook to hang a story on.  But my mind just doesn’t work that way.

Given the typical prompt, I simply stare off into space wondering what am I going to do with an unexpected box of doughnuts sitting in the middle of the desk when I arrive at work one morning.  Nothing comes to mind.  And, yes, that was an actual ‘prompt’ I saw somewhere, sometime.  And, no, I did not get any kind of story out of it.

Now, if the prompt had been a description of the person delivering the doughnuts, I might have been able to make something out it.  Why is the fellow with the ghastly scar running from above the corner of his eye to his jawline leaving a box of doughnuts?  That I might be able to work with.  My first question is where and how did he get the scar?  How did such a massive injury affect him?  What kind of personality has that injury left him with?  OK, now I know something about him and I can simply ask him why he leaving the doughnuts on my desk.  Oh, he’s my long-lost brother and I didn’t recognize him because of the massive scar he got as a sailor on board a sailing ship intercepted by pirates?  Yeah, that would be pretty cheesy as a story line, wouldn’t it?  Don’t worry.  I’ll never bring it up again.

However, I did flash on just such a face with just such a scar some time back.  I haven’t spent much time with him yet, but I know he’s called Bolo, deriving from how he got the scar.  He’s a mercenary soldier in a science fictional universe.  May get a story out of it before I’m done, or I may not.  That’s part of the fun I have in my writing.

I would be interested in hearing how you find your stories.  Do you find inspiration for a story to tell and then develop the characters necessary to populate your story?  Or do you, like me, get inspiration from character s who need to tell their own stories?  Both, you say?

I look forward to hearing from you.  The coffee is always on.



7 thoughts on “Characters vs. Plots

  1. This is something I’ve never really stopped to think about before, but you’re quite right! My stories often seem to start from the character first as well – the plot then kind of evolves from there. And I can certainly agree with you about creative writing prompts that describe a setting/situation – my first thought are the characters who are there or who it is happening to…I may have to re-read some of my older stuff to see if the story has in fact always evolved from the characters…its an interesting thought. Thanks for the thought-provoking post on a lazy day off! 😛


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