Character vs. Plot: Which comes first?

Character vs. Plot. When you sit down to work on a new story, which comes first, the characters or the plot? Obviously both are key elements; author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford even declares that character and plot are inseparable because the traits that make a character compelling are revealed through the plot. But which comes first?

Recently, a writer friend and I discussed our typical paths from idea to manuscript, and learned why we work well as critique partners. My friend said that ideas come to her as plots, and she has no trouble figuring out exactly how to bring the story from Point A to Point B, with every step in between neatly laid out. For her, the greater challenge lies in developing the characters.

I have the exact opposite problem. Ideas come to me as characters, sometimes complete with decades of backstory before I have any clear idea of what happens in the actual story. I’ll have a vague idea of the plot, but the character always comes first. For me, the greatest challenge is pinning down the plot.

The one exception to this was my current WIP, a YA fantasy that came to me as a fully-formed plot. I didn’t even know the main character’s name until the very end of my brainstorming session. Her history beyond a few days before the story began didn’t matter; she was simply the girl who was going on the quest I’d imagined.

Because I’m so used to focusing on character, that part of the story came naturally as I was writing the book. I thought up and wove in backstory for all the key characters when and where it seemed important, without getting bogged down in too much history and not enough action. The result: I wrote the quickest, and best, first draft of my career.

Now I’m approaching ideas from a new angle. Instead of getting caught up in my characters early on (a mistake that led to three drafts of another project that I’ve set aside in frustration for the moment), when I get an idea, I’ll start hammering out the plot. I won’t even let myself name the characters until I know what they’re doing, and then why it matters to them. I’m confident the characters will come.

If you’re like me, I encourage you to try looking for plots before your characters have taken over with elaborate histories that could bog down or even conflict with the story. And if you think of ideas as plots, try getting to know the characters more before the story runs away with them. You might be surprised by how easily the writing comes when you mix it up.

Or am I the only one who comes up with characters first? I’m curious, do ideas come to you as characters or plots?

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