When you’re writing fiction, what comes first? Your characters, or your plot?
No, this isn’t a trick question. For me, the seed of a plot usually arrives first, then the characters arrive. Other authors create their characters, then kickstart them into a plot.
Sometimes my “seed of a plot” strategy doesn’t work.
For example, a few weeks ago, I was ready to write the next novel in a series I’m writing for a longterm ghostwriting client. I did all the usual things: set up folders on my computer, created a Scrivener file, then…
Nothing. Not an idea in my head. Oh well, lucky I keep an ideas file, right?
Writing fiction: plot first, or characters first?
After zooming through my Ideas notebook in Evernote, I chose an idea, and briefly outlined a plot. Three days later, I deleted everything, because I couldn’t force myself to work on it.
The same thing happened with the next idea I chose: three days, delete.
Anxiety set in. I swore under my breath, then out loud.
The time I’d allocated for this novel zoomed closer to the deadline; I had to start writing.
Create a few characters: stop when you get inspired
What if I created a character, and allowed the character to lead me?
I typed out my favorite character creation template:
Primary external problem
Let’s look at an example: Jenny Caraway, 25, teacher, nervous, bullied by another teacher.
Here’s another one: Jim Rossi, 30, civil engineer, hot-tempered, fired from job.
I didn’t spend any time thinking about those characters. I just started typing. You can do this too. Use the template, and create a few characters. Keep going until one strikes a spark.
1. Who are you?
The key with this template is not to think. You can change everything later if you need to; the point is to get something onto the computer screen.
Try the exercise and see how you go. At the end of half an hour you should have several characters with whom you can work.
Choose one to interview.
Write, or type: “who are you?”
Write without thinking, as the character. First thoughts are best.
2. What’s your biggest fear?
Everyone’s scared of something: clowns, loud voices, footsteps when you wake at night and you’re alone in the house…
Still writing as the character, describe your biggest fear.
3. What don’t you know — about yourself, or someone important?
With this question, you’re triggering your plot.
Again, writing as the character, write the answer to: “what don’t you know — about yourself, or someone important?”
Once my main character had answered the three questions, I was excited to start plotting and writing. And yes, I finished the novel in record time.
When you’re writing fiction, you need to spark your imagination
When you’re writing fiction, you need your imagination to do the work for you. Otherwise, as happened to me:
You realize that your plot is stupid. Not only do you suddenly hate your story people, you wish that they would all join hands and jump off a cliff.
Asking your characters questions is a simple way of triggering your imagination.
Try this simple process, and let me know how the process works for you.
All authors do; no one sets out to write a boring novel.
Your readers want to enter your novel's world. They want to experience your book -- they want to live your book with your main characters.More info →
I developed the tactics and strategies in this book to help myself. My students have found them essential to producing both fiction and nonfiction almost effortlessly.More info →
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