Plot Or Character? What’s
Your Starting Point?

By PJ Parrish

If you write long enough, you will eventually get this question: Where do you get your ideas?

Readers seem to be fascinated by the novel writing process, thinking it some mysterious alchemy, stories arising from the ether of the writer’s soul. (Which, of course, it is). But where the ideas come from is often quite prosaic and, well, practical.

I’ve never really given much thought to where my story ideas come from. They just do. Thank God. But I ran across a good blog at Jane Friedman’s site the other day that got me to thinking that maybe the kernels of our stories are an either-or thing.

Guest blogger Susan DeFreitas posits that, in her experience as a book coach, novelists fall into two camps: those who start with character and those who start with plot or story concept. To quote DeFreitas:

CHARACTER: Writers who start with character tend to be empathetic people—“people people,” you might say. A new story for these folks may arrive in the form of a certain voice in their head, or a line or two that seems promising. Or they might be struck at first by a type of character—for instance, a character who’s a bit like an intriguing person they happen to know, or a bit like a character in a book or movie they loved.

PLOT: Plot people, generally speaking, are idea people. A new story may arrive in the form of a concept they’re fascinated by—say, the idea that aliens might be symbiotic beings, in much the same way that lichens are—or an intriguing question: What if two twins, dissatisfied with their lives and marriages, decided to pass as each other for a year? Or they might be interested in writing a type of story. Say, a thriller that revolves around the trafficking of endangered species, or a story that combines elements of space opera and noir.

Well, my Louis Kincaid series, of course, started with my protagonist. He’s a biracial man with a rough childhood as a foster kid who gets kicks off the police force and spends most of ten books trying to reclaim his badge — and his tortured past. Which dovetails with what James wrote about Sunday: backstory as conflict catalyst. So I am character driven, right?

I always thought I was. But as I read DeFreitas’s blog, I realized I am more plot-driven when it comes to inspiration. Which was something of a revelation to me. I seem to fall head-over-heels for the big “what if…?”

Example: My sister and I were doing a book signing in Ft. Myers years back. Kelly and I had just returned from lunch at a rustic inn way out on a tiny island in Pine Island Sound. The waters around Ft. Myers are dotted with hundreds of islands, most just green tufts, but a couple privately owned and quite secretive. We were jawing about setting a book on such a remote place but getting nowhere with an actual plot. A woman came up to our table to get a book and we chatted. She said she was a psychologist who specialized in the sociopathology of extended families forced to live in close quarters.

What if…

There was a big family living out on one of the sound’s remote islands. What if they ran a run-down restaurant to make ends meet but no one knew anything about them? What if one of the women tired of the forced isolation and tried to run away by stealing a boat? What if a hurricane was coming? What if her body was found washed up in the mangroves near Ft. Myers? What if no one could identify her but she was wearing a strange ring carved from coral? What if there were, Louis discovered, a list of unsolved cases of missing teenage girls from the area that extended over thirty years?

So was born Island of Bones. It turned out to be one of our best sellers and won the International Thriller Award.

As I think back now, I realize almost all our stories were plot-hatched. Quite a revelation to this writer who prides herself on character development.

To get back to Susan DeFreitas’s blog: She makes some interesting points about the strengths and challenges for writers of plot versus character inspiration. See if any of this resonates with you:

PLOT INSPIRED

Strength: It’s inherently high-concept

Writers can describe their book in a sentence or two that will get the attention of both readers and publishing professionals, because the story concept speaks for itself.

Strength: Readers love plot

Yes, there’s a solid market for character-driven fiction—but the market for plot-driven fiction is substantially larger, encompassing genres like speculative fiction and mysteries/thrillers. Writers with an intuitive sense of plot don’t struggle to keep their readers turning the pages. In their stories, A leads to B leads to C, and D is that mind-blowing twist that keeps the reader up way past her bedtime. Such writers tend to have a lot of rabbits hidden up their sleeve, so to speak, and for the reader, there’s a real sense of delight when one after the next is revealed.

Strength: There’s no question of what happens

Writers who excel with plot are really people who excel at ideas: they know the field they want to traverse, so they pick the path that hits all the vistas they want to reveal. That’s a very different—and easier—proposition than trying to figure out what a given character or characters should do, or what should happen to them.

Challenge: Lack of character arc

The characters often start as a means to an end, the who that will discover the what. In order for the story to develop a sense of meaning and depth, these writers have to dig deeper with their characters in revision, exploring who these characters really are, what makes them tick, and the emotional journey they’ll make over the course of the story. Plot keeps the reader turning the pages…[but] it’s the characters, and the way they’ve either learned and grown over the story or, tragically, failed to. This is the part that writers who start with plot often have to figure out, and layer in, in revision.

Challenge: The incredible expanding plot problem

The thing about being good at plot is…it’s hard to know when to stop. One thing leads to the next, leads to another, leads to a fascinating subplot, and then another, and then, before you know it, you’ve got 160,000 words of something that may not in fact be publishable. Writers with this problem either have to train themselves how to outline in a way that addresses character arc or develop an eagle eye in revision for what’s really important in the story and what’s not.

Challenge: Lack of a real ending

Writers who tend to start with plot often find themselves writing a series. One pitfall of this tendency is that such writers often don’t know how to actually end their first book in a way that will be satisfying for the reader. Such writers often want to hold onto some big development until Book Two, or even Book Three. My response to that is this: Don’t hold your best cards for some imagined future story, because if you don’t end Book One in way that’s satisfying for the reader, and brings all the major threads of the story through to compelling climax and resolution—even if that resolution is just the troubled situation that will begin the next book in the series—there won’t be another book in the series, because the first one won’t get published.

CHARACTER INSPIRED

Strength: Characters make us care.

Writers who start with character don’t struggle to create characters who seem alive on the page, whose struggles touch upon universal themes, and who exhibit the sort of complexity that makes us as readers really feel what it is to be human.

Strength: There’s a solid market for character-driven fiction.

The vast majority of novels that fall into the genres known as contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction are character-driven. Which is to say, there’s a solid contingency of readers who read fiction for exactly what writers who start with character are generally able to deliver, on every single page: The sense of being someone else, seeing the world through their eyes, and going through a meaningful transformation or change over the course of the story. Writers who start with character generally don’t struggle to determine if there’s a market for the sort of thing they do, because that market is broad and well defined.

Strength: There’s no question whose story it is.

Other types of writers may spend some time in the planning stages of a novel wrestling with the question of who their protagonist should be. But for writers who start with character, this generally isn’t an issue (unless there are so many compelling characters in their head that it’s just hard to choose among them). These type of writers are not like directors looking for actors to play a part in their story—they’re more like directors making a biopic, with the story as a whole built around a certain character.

Challenge: Too many POVs

If you do something well as a writer, why not do more of it? That’s often the position taken by writers who start with character, whether they realize it or not, by adding many different POVs in their novels. POV comes easily to such writers, and they generally find it fun, because they don’t struggle to get inside the heads of the protagonist’s husband, for example, or her kids, or even the checkout clerk at the grocery store where she shops. These other POVs [can be] compelling and well written. But that doesn’t mean they serve the story. sometimes these other POVs are no more than game trails that lead the story off on tangents without contributing to the main story line.

Challenge: Lack of arc

Sometimes writers have so much love and sympathy for their protagonists that they have a hard time imagining a real flaw for that character, or some real issue in the way that person sees the world. But without an issue or flaw there’s no real character arc, no clear way that the story will push the protagonist to grow and change.

Challenge: Episodic or slow plot

Readers in general find deep character work compelling. But that doesn’t mean a novel can just rely on character to keep the reader turning the pages. For that to happen, there needs to be a causally linked series of events, with emotional stakes, that escalates over the course of a story to a distinct breaking point—in other words, a real plot.

So…which compels you — plot or character? And do you find yourself sometimes struggling with some of the challenges of either as outlined by Susan DeFreitas? Maybe you’re a hybrid like me. Yeah, I seem to start with plot, with some big idea. But for me, character must win out in the end.

A really great story is like juggling. You have to be able to keep all the balls in the air. And make it look like the easiest magic trick in the world.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

38 thoughts on “Plot Or Character? What’s
Your Starting Point?

  1. Thanks for another peek behind the curtain, Kris, particularly with respect to Island of Bones, one of my favorite books of yours and…well, just about anyone’s really.

    I live near a reservoir — not quite as grand as living near a beach, but still — and there are rumors about a couple of houses on the other side of the water where the music is loud and the lights are bright well past midnight each evening. Who knows what goes on. There’s a story there, I’m sure…

    • I forgot to mention, Joe, re Island of Bones, that the original inspiration came from one of my fave songs by the J. Geils band “Monkey Island.” Opening lyrics:

      No one could explain it
      What went on that night
      How every living thing
      Just dropped out of sight
      We watched them take the bodies
      And row them back to shore
      Nothing like that ever
      Happened here before.

      On the east side of the island
      Not too far from the shore
      There stood the old house
      Of fifty years or more
      All the doors and windows
      Were locked inside and out
      The fate of those trapped in there
      Would never be found out.

      Like your reservoir dogs, I just HAD to find out what was going there.

    • Here’s an idea for you Joe. Plot idea or IRL, whichever you prefer. Fun either way.

      My son had a apartment with rude neighbors who played their hard rock music loud and late. Fairly rough crowd, so complaining to cops was not an option. During a visit, I helped him rig up a rhombus antenna in his apartment (simple 4 thin wires, easily taken down in a hurry if needed.)

      Then the fun began. The output of the rhombus antenna was focused on the offender’s apartment, overwhelming their stereo amplifier with gospel music, loud enough to be heard across the street. Fun in and of itself.

      Cops showed up and the music was turned down.

      Just to have a little more fun, we waited until the cops were almost out of the apartment complex and cranked up the music again. For some reason, the cops didn’t think it was funny. Returning they issued a second warning and left.

      We debated for a long time, at least 30 seconds, and decided to see what would happen if the cops came back a third time. Very unhappy and you can imagine the rest.

      Fairly peaceful and quiet after that.

      By the way, be forewarned, operating a broadcast radio transmitter in this way can get you in trouble with the FCC if they catch you. Little chance of that if you do a quick “in & out.” But as the bumper sticker said, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Think the same goes for guys too.

      Have fun.

  2. Well, you made me think, Kris. I lean toward characters, but I need a situation to put them in before I get rolling. In my Mapleton series, I’ve got the recurring protagonist, so I’m thinking those books are more plot inspired, since I know the “who”.
    My other series are more of the connected book variety, but I still need to know whose book it’s going to be before I start writing. But the who isn’t enough without a problem, so that would be plot, although that unfolds as I write.
    I guess my answer is “I don’t know.” But I’ll be thinking about it, probably for days.

      • Yeah, I agree. Good answer. I suspect that those who write crime fiction tend toward “idea people” ie plot catalysts. But we all understand it is nothing without characters to care about. And characters that must undergo a developmental arc ,ie plot. So they are intertwined. Which is probably why crime fiction is so popular. And why so many literary types try to dabble in it.

  3. I’d call myself “plot-motivated, character-animated.”

    If you write long enough, you will eventually get this question: Where do you get your ideas?

    Harlan Ellison, annoyed with the question (as he was with almost anything or anybody), used to answer, “Schenectady. Yeah, there’s this idea service in Schenectady and every week like clockwork they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas for 25 bucks.” Of course, people would want him to give them the address….

    • Another great answer, and probably accurate for me to a large degree. I could joke about taking the next Super Chief from Union Station to Schenectady, but I like my process the way it is, whatever it is.

    • Now I am tempted to use that line. Although I picture my idea station as a party store in the UP that sends me Faygo Rock and Rye.

    • I tell people I have an idea tree in my yard, and I go out and pick them as needed. Sometimes they’re overripe and on the ground, others aren’t ready to be plucked from the tree.

  4. Great post, Kris. This is a very interesting topic to me. I’m compelled by plot, but I continue to look for ways to build the story with plot AND character. When my first reader, my wife, reads a finished story, if the character arc isn’t there with a good resolution, she says, “Mm, this doesn’t do anything for me.” When we watch movies together on Saturday night, we tend to pick Character Driven stories.

    In the discussion about plot and resonance a few weeks ago, Dale mentioned “The Heroine’s Journey.” That was new to me and I sought out a couple books. I was waylaid and didn’t finish, but I got the impression The Heroine’s Journey was more about character than plot. When I’ve read specifically about character arc, some writers state that the character development needs to be built in from the beginning, not layered in later.

    So, when I saw your topic, I was hoping you were going to tell us how you outline the character development along with the plot, as the character development specialist of your team. Maybe a future post?

    And, on Island of Bones: I loved the story. Whenever I think about the richness of the English language, or the multiple meanings of a word, I think about the word “rapture” and the picture that hung behind the bar in the island restaurant.

    • Steve…great idea for a future blog. Thanks. Will work on it. And thanks for the kind words about Bones. It remains one of my favorite books to have written. The process was easy compared to others, as the plot just flowed. But we did have to go back and layer in more character development, especially for Louis’s side kick/foil Mel. In this case, the plot threatened to swamp the characters.

  5. Good morning, Kris. I had also read Susan DeFreitas’s blog post a few days ago and it made me think about my own approach. I guess I’m a hybrid. For my first novel, I knew who the protagonist would be and I had the basic plot points and even secondary characters in my mind before I started writing.

    Since I’m writing a cozy mystery series, the main characters are set, but I have the opportunity to give them different plot hoops to jump through in each successive story. I’m introducing major secondary characters in my WIP (the third in the series) to vary the approach and (I hope) keep readers engaged.

    • Yup, I have the same process with our series. Louis is firm in our minds, yet we have him coming in contact with other characters who trigger certain changes in his character. With a series, I think you work with two character arcs: One in each book and a larger one that stretches through your series. A PLOT point triggers a change in Louis in each book. But each of those connect to the larger arc of the entire series.

  6. Like you, the spark for an idea always lies in plot for me. But I can’t get anywhere near the drawing board until I have a few solid characters in my head, and some ideas for plot points. I used to think I was a character person too, as anyone who doesn’t immediately come up with a five book plot idea does. And I tried writing that way, but everything turned to trash.. and here I’ll praise structure again. I’m currently working on a WIP that hits all the marks on it’s first draft because it has the strongest structure I’ve ever come up with. And this idea was born seven years ago out of a character.

    • Yes, I get that, ie your point that trying to write strictly from character vantage leads me nowhere. I need that “what if…?” Good to hear your WIP is working out!

  7. Great post – timely (as many seem to be these days…)

    I’d hafta say I start out largely plot driven – “What if…?” inspired. Something I’ll have read or heard or watched and/or someplace I’ve been suddenly clicks together with an odd idea and then – Hmmm… 🤔

    But, once the big pieces begin to fall into place, the character I see involved in these what ifs begins to take shape and live in/influence what happens…

    If I can use my first NaNo attempt as an example:
    The old Naval Armory at Georgia Tech had a walk-way overlooking the gym…
    …so what if a promising Navy ROTC student commits suicide from that walkway?
    …and his father, a Navy captain, can’t accept that finding?
    …and the PI he hires to look into it is a not a lone Sam Spade/Travis MaGee type, but a corporate working stiff assigned to the case from his cube-farm workstation?

    From those bullet-point questions, the characters then began to flesh out and led to other plot what-ifs and supporting characters…

    “Expanding plot” and “no clear ending” don’t seem to be problems – despite my “rabbit-trailing” nature, but getting to a satisfactory character arc tends to slow things down a bit… and with the exception of the NaNo referenced above, nothing else I’ve worked on (and completed 😉), has felt like it should/could become a series…

    • I like your NaNo “what…if?”

      As for plots becoming hydras: I have a friend from our old critique group who struggled with this. Her plots were super complicated and yet it was always her characters that appealed to us. We were constantly telling her to pare down the story to give the characters more room to breathe.

  8. I’m a hybrid for sure. I’ll often think of a murder scene first, then ask what type of character would be most affected by it? After some tweaking, the character and plot usually line up in a compelling way. Key word: usually. 😉

    • Your post made me smile because during a trip to Paris, I got a great idea for a serial killer plot. All excited, I told Kelly when I got home. Her answer:

      “Louis isn’t a Paris kind of guy.”

      She was right. Three years later, it became our first stand alone “The Killing Song.”

  9. Put me in the Plot category. Some ideas fascinate me to the point that I have to make a story out of it. For example, the idea of Newton’s Third Law enacting retribution to the bad guy inspired my sci-fi/mystery tale The Calculus of Karma.

    • Whelp, you forced me to go look up Newton’s third law. (I had heard only of the first) and now my brain hurts.

  10. Good subject, Kris, and it makes me think character vs plot is a lot like show vs tell. You have to have a mix of both but (in my bit of experience) characters lead as they have to be doing something to further the plot. If I ever get a formula figured out, I’ll be happy to share it… but don’t nobody go holdin’ their breath. Enjoy your day!

  11. Insightful post, Kris. Like you, I thought of myself as a character first writer, but your post made me realize I’m really much more a plot first sort of writer. DeFreitas’s point that the type of story being a starting point for inspiration describes me, as does concept. I like Jim’s description of being plot-motivated, and character-animated, that describes me to a tee 🙂

    Lots to think about here. Thanks!

    • Yes, “character animated” is an excellent way to think of it. And let’s thank Susan DeFreitus for the blog that got me thinking in the first place.

  12. Love today’s post and topic because it encapsulates why I wrestle so much with my writing. Not because I wrestle with which one is my starting point—but because there are pros and cons to each and even cons to the perceived pros. LOL!

    Since almost everything I write is historical, it’s always about starting with plot. That’s why doing research is a good thing/bad thing. It generates so many ideas. BUT, even though plot is my stronger suit, I still get very upset with myself because even within one story I get a million ideas—that expanding plot problem described in today’s post. And it causes me to founder.

    And yes, I almost always think in series although coming up with a proper ending isn’t as much a struggle as getting control over a thousand ideas.

    But the other problem I definitely have, because I love ideas, is that I have to be very careful about my characters. They may be very nuanced in my mind, but sometimes that isn’t always clear on the page. Like having a villain who to the reader seems a bit one dimensional.

    Either way, I still have much to learn!

    • I don’t know if this helps, but one of my favorite quotes about the creative process is from the choreographer George Balanchine who began his life as a creator of story ballets (ie Swan Lake et al) and changed ballet forever with his abstract works. He said:

      “The hardest part is knowing what to leave out.”

  13. Ideas have come from everything from a dream to a thematic idea, but I create the book itself with both plot and character because they are the same thing in the structure of the novel. Characters are created for the plot, and the plot is shown through the inner and outer struggles of the characters. I learned this method from Ben Bova’s THE CRAFT OF WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS. His structural method works with any type of novel.

    If anyone is interested in more detail about Bova’s book, I wrote a blog on his method and how I used it to create one of my novels.

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2016/09/using-index-cards-to-plot-your-novel.html

    • Thanks for the link, Marilynn. As we all seem to agree here, plot and character are relentlessly intertwined.

  14. The Unconscious makes up 90% of our minds, and somewhere is an entity I call “The Guardienne.” She’s in charge of both protecting us and making stuff up, and she’s good at those because she has no conscience. Our own Joan of Arc/ brainstormer right with us, and I steal her very best ideas.

    Did I write my last screenplay starting from character? Or plot? Only my Guardienne knows for sure. I thought plot, though either MC could have kicked off the very same plot. But the underlying short story begins: “Back when there were no paved roads in Saguaro Flat, the best way to meet a stranger there was not at all.” It started with setting.

    • I get that. Settings are often my departure point. I guess that’s why, when I do a First Page Critique here, I am always nagging the writers to pay more attention to their settings.

  15. I don’t do plot. Not up-front. I’m a pulp-fiction guy, so my main character is going to be like a target in a shooting gallery from early on, and the main McGuffin won’t be the same as the initial McGuffin, so Job One is to flesh out the protagonist and the initial situation. Sorta like the first reel in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

    Only after my story has reached a point equivalent to Indy being sneered at by Belloq and escaping with his hat and his ass do I need a wider perspective, and by then my characters and situation have been fleshed out enough that I can find one.

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