What comes first? Character or plot?

By Gail Z. Martin

What happens first in the mind of a reader—character or plot?

My answer is—it depends.

Sometimes, I have a very strong feel for a character, and the more I think about that character, the more clear I get on what kind of adventure that character would have and how he/she would rise to the challenge.

In other cases, the plot and setting come to me, and I need to think about who the right kinds of characters would be who could carry of that plot in that setting.

The more I talk with other authors, the more I’m convinced that there is no single right way to write.  In fact, the more books I write (I’m up to about 14 published books as we speak), the more I’m also convinced that the process changes with each book, each character and every plotline.

When the character becomes clear to me first, I usually get a sense of that character as if I actually met the person.  Sometimes all at once, and sometimes a little at a time, I get the back story, the physical characteristics, the fears, hopes and dreams that have created my character.

When the plot firms up first, I see the story arc, the key milestones, the major twists and turns and the climax like a movie that needs to be cast.  So like any good casting agent, I think about what the hero of the piece would be like, who the love interest is, who the antagonists would be, who is in the supporting cast and what roles they play.  Then I “cast” the roles by creating characters who fit the requirements, characters who ultimately become very real to me.

Over the course of a writing career, it’s likely that you’ll have some books come to you in one way, and some in the other.  Try not to judge.  Both are equally legitimate.  They’re just different starting points, but you can get a good ending from either path.  Try to enjoy the journey.

When you begin with the plot, you may find that the action is very clear to you, but it takes more thought to figure out what motivates your characters and to make them real and emotionally accessible to your readers.

When you begin with the characters, it feels as if you’re writing about flesh-and-blood people you’ve known all your life, but you may struggle to get the story arc just right.  Be prepared for some rewrites as you go down a few dead ends and get inspiration partway through the first draft.  That’s just the nature of the muse.  Roll with it.

I’ve found both approaches to result in a very satisfactory outcome.  True, it takes some adaptability on the part of the author, but if you can be flexible, you may find that the end result is well worth the effort.

Regardless of which piece comes to you first, be glad your muse has spoken and run with it!  Rest assured that you will find the story that needs to be told.


Gail Z. Martin is the author of Ice Forged in her new The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books), plus The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven & Dark Lady’s Chosen ) and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn  and The Dread).  She is also the author of two series on ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Series. Find her online at www.AscendantKingdoms.com.


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