Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Plot First or Character First?

Plot or character? I suppose you might call it a debate, but there are people who insist upon writing plot based stories and there are people who insist upon writing character based stories. I’ve also seen some people say we should chuck it all and writer premise based stories. I can’t say that’s such a bad idea, but the person who said it didn’t know what a premise is, defining it as the foundational idea upon which the characters and plot are based.[1] It may be good at this point to remind you that a premise is the statement we attempt to prove or disprove in an argument. The statement “writers should focus on character development first” is a premise, but that doesn’t mean we can create characters and plot from it. At the heart of this debate over plot, character, premise, or whatever is the underlying question of where should I start?

Let’s say you have a story idea. We won’t call it a premise, but you know enough to want to write the story and you’re looking for the best place to start. You could start with plot, detailing what happens and then finding characters with the proper motive. You could start with characters, find things that put them in conflict and then throw them together to find out where the conflict will lead. And while we’re at it, we might as well consider starting with the “premise.” There are a couple of possible ways to look at that. One is that you actually have a statement you want to make, so you build a story around it. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is built around the premise that slavery hurts innocent people, but many times the premise isn’t so clear and we may not know what it is until we’ve written much of the book.

The other way we start with the “premise” is what the writer I mentioned before is talking about. Often, the idea that triggers a book is the inciting incident. The writer gave an example premise as “A commodities broker lives for the excitement of the trading pit until his ex-wife dies and he must take custody of his four-year-old son.”[1] This is clearly the inciting incident, but it doesn’t tell us how the broker will handle the situation. There are many different stories we might build around this idea.

Beginning with the aforementioned inciting incident and developing the plot first, here are a few story concepts:

  • A commodities broker investigates the death of his ex-wife while struggling to help his son deal with the loss.
  • A commodities broker gives up the excitement of the trading pit in order to care for his son after the death of his ex-wife.
  • A commodities broker must prove he didn’t kill his ex-wife while trying to keep her family from hiding their son from him.
  • A commodities broker uses a dating service to find a wife to help care for his four-year-old son after the death of his ex-wife.

If we look at the characters first, we might have something like the following:

  • highly successful, but lonely commodities broker, doesn’t like kids
  • particularly needy four-year-old son
  • ex-wife’s family hates commodities broker

You’ll notice that the plots tell us little about the characters and the characters tell us little about the plot. In fact, the characters we defined could fit into any of the plots we defined. A plot doesn’t naturally come from throwing two enemies in a room together. At the same time, it’s impossible to fully develop a plot without knowing anything about the characters. In other words, we have to develop both plot and character together.