Q&A With A Wordsmith: First Comes The Plot Or The Characters?

On Writing, Random Thoughts

Heya Lovelies,

As a writer taking a rather unique path, I often receive a wide range of questions. So far, I’ve covered some broad topics which you can find here and I’ll continue to shed some light on further questions. With luck, you’ll gain some understanding and insight along the way.

If you have a question you’d like me to answer, feel free to comment or drop me an email.


Question:
Does the plot come first, or is it the characters?

Short Answer:

Neither.

Long Answer:

Any book a writer considers has some kind of premise. For example: A boy that grew up with unfortunate circumstances in the human world is admitted to a wizardry school. Or: An unpopular, high school outcast with the power to move things with her mind is tormented by her peers. 

But those examples aren’t the actual plot. The plot is the chapters that take readers from beginning, middle, climax, and resolution. You don’t know how that boy finds out he’s a wizard or what awaits him. You don’t know what that girl’s peers do to her or what happens if they go too far.

Furthermore, those example don’t specify, in detail, who those characters are. We don’t know Harry Potter is actually a good, kind-hearted kid that tries to do the right thing. We don’t know that Carrie is abused by her devout mother and yet she still wants to be accepted by everyone. 

To me, the best books are made by establishing the core of it first. In other words, give the book a heart — its soul. 

What is a book’s soul? It could be the underlying lesson or a feeling. In Maggie Stiefvater’s now defunct live-journal blog, she once wrote that the heart of her YA paranormal romance, Shiver was a feeling. More than anything else, she wanted readers to feel bittersweet. If anything in her book threatened that heart, she was willing to cut it out. 

For Just Breathe and the entire Earthen Witch universe series, the heart of everything revolved around coming to terms with the past and making the most of the circumstances going into the future. 

If you know the soul of the book you’re wanting to write, the characters and plot become a close second. There could be a fantastic plot with all sorts of page-turning surprises, but if readers cannot empathize and care for your characters, then it’s all for nothing. 

In my experience, as the plot develops and evolves, it’s important to flesh out the characters — the protagonist, antagonist, supporting roles, etc. And as those are created, it’s important to give them life with their own motivations and back stories. 

Readers need to want those characters to succeed in their goals. The more readers are invested in both the story and its characters, the more that book’s soul will resonate with them. 


Coming up, I’ll tell you about the risks I’ve taken with my books and whether I have any regrets. 

Until next time,
Sarah

P. S. If you want to see for yourself what books I have to offer, find your FREE copies at your favorite retailer

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7 thoughts on “Q&A With A Wordsmith: First Comes The Plot Or The Characters?

  1. I completely agree you with on the premise, and the characters evolving. But I end up writing more “slice out of time” things where the arc is more experiential than pitch, qualify and close. The loose word for that is “caper.” Even in something like a coming of age with an issue like Carrie, turned down to 11 maybe. As far as reader character investment, the less said the better. How they behave is who they are. A few hints as to what they look like is all I’ve found necessary as readers will own the characters as they see them, not as I do. I sent out a lengthy beta one time with only enough generic description for readers to “roll their own.” I learned two things. 70k is plenty, 90k is overkill. And when I asked, I got 10 different “close enough” net pics of the protagonist. At first, I was cheesed because they weren’t what I saw. Then I got happy because my girl had embedded herself in the readers, with very little help from me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I agree. The physical descriptions are less important than who they are. If it seemed as though I was implying that was more important, it wasn’t my intention. For people, their decisions are made based upon their previous experiences. So if character A chooses route 1, there’s bound to be something in their past that leads them to that choice.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We were on the same page. And as you say, even for a caper there has to be motivation backstory or there’s no reason or logic to the character’s behavior. Sometimes it can be as simple as “John got out of jail three days ago after doing twenty seven months of a three to five for auto theft when he got the call…” there are deeper issues but unless it’s a major player they can be two liners to flesh them out and next. I’m never arguing with you. Your posts are great for reasoned conversation. Different approaches are pretty much the same approach because we’re all looking for a good result. I learned after years in the music biz that everybody works a different version of the same process to get the desired result.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, I understand what you mean, not every character would need an extensive history. I didn’t think you were arguing about anything, either. I just wanted to make sure if I accidentally gave the wrong impression.

        Liked by 1 person

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