Nov 2, 2013

Which Came First, the Story or the Character?

I'm notoriously BAD at outlining/planning anything. Plans just never seem to stick when it comes to me. For example, I went out to see a movie last night (Ender's Game...yeah, it was awesome) and I came back home with thirty pounds of whole chickens. Yeah, even I was thinking 'WTF' as I lugged them into my house.

The truth is, I love the element of surprise.

When I start a book, I have a general idea of what's going on: girl meets boy, girl kills boy, boy possess girl, boy kills girl. The end.

Yerp, that's usually all I have when I walk into a committed book-lationship. It's kind of like getting married after the first date. (Never said my method was the wisest in the world)

It's works for me though. It's time consuming. But it works

My rationale is that novels should be as unpredictable as people and life. No one ever really knows how they will react in a situation until they are actually put in that situation. Personally, I think that in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I'll be a well-balanced, sword-wielding ninja who leads a group to safety. Now, I have no martial arts skills whatsoever, but if something as bizarre as a zombie apocalypse happens, then developing insane blackbelt jujitsu moves only seem like a probable next step, right?

I don't make this. I'm not THAT talented

Since I don't really KNOW my characters at the beginning of a book, I think it's highly unlikely that I could even remotely predict their actions correctly. I imagine a story as a huge forest surrounded by constantly narrowing walls. The character can choose any path through the forest, but regardless to what he chooses, he will still be funneled out exactly where I want him to be.

My character NEVER follows the path I think he/she will. Hell, sometimes they even break down the wall.

Why? I hear you asking. Why not just make your characters do what you want? It's your characters. It's not like they're real or anything.

To me, my characters are real. They're not me. They're not even extensions of me. They're (stepping into nutty territory here) friends that I grow to love as I understand them more (bad guys included). I try to give each of my characters a past, even if it's not spelled out it text. I give them a favorite color, a best friend, a childhood bully, (personally obstacles such as...) anorexia/bulimia, bed-wetting, an STD, etc.

The reader never discovers half the stuff I know about my characters, but it help them become more real in my mind and on the page. As I grow to learn more about them, I come to realize that 'NO! she wouldn't do that, she would do this.' Even if the 'that' is an integral part of the story.

And I can't come up with their past before hand because then I feel like my character is a product of the story. So, I guess this is my complicated answer for the age-old question: which came first, the story or the character?

I guess, for me, it's a bit of both. But in the end, the character dictates the story, not the other way around.



  1. This reminds me of a social experiment I toyed with. When I was trying to find a voice for a character, I made a fake facebook account and added a hundred people. Over time, a group of people began trying to track my character down, and they believed he was a real person. It taught me how to talk like that character. How that character interacts.

    Although, that was only the one time. Usually my characters just develop as they are written. At the end of writing, I usually try and compartmentalize what traits that character took on, and when I edit, I enhance the non-growth-related traits I discovered in my characters near the end to the rest of the piece so that he/she feels consistent.

  2. Great post. Even though everyone writes differently, I found myself nodding along with what you said here. I feel my characters take over as well. And I'm glad they do! Makes writing all that more interesting for me. (I even think Steven King would agree, but that's a BOLD statement. haha)

  3. For me, it's almost always the characters that come first. I tend to write my early drafts with characters in search of a story to hold them together, and then, when it dawns on me what unites these crazies I have in my head, I go back, blow things ups, and rewrite to create that narrative around who and what they are. It means I spend the first months of writing (NaNoWriMo, anyone?) knowing that very little of what I'm writing right then and there will make it to the final draft. . . But it also means that I can feel confident that I always know my character's motivations and reactions.