Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Chicken or Fish

I was asked a question last week, and so I'm going to take this post to answer it.

"My question is this do you come up with story first or the character or a combination or what? What inspires the story more the character or the story?"

This is what I like to call a "chicken or fish" question.1 Do the characters create the plot, or does the plot define the characters?

The short answer to this is that it depends.

The story I'm working on right now started with a vague idea for a plot, since I had a prompt to go off of. I then had to figure out what kind of character would inhabit this story. Now they're sort of evolving side by side. I realize something new about the character (stay tuned for Friday) and that leads to some new element of plot.

I think I usually start with a plot and then work in the characters. I have lists and lists of plot ideas, dialogue   fragments, you name it. Typically I'll take one of those and then figure out the whos and whys. 2015's NaNo novel, A Conspiracy of Ravens, started with the idea that some guy would be framed for an assassination and find himself caught up in some conspiracy. From there I had to figure out who this guy was and how he got mixed up in this. And then there was the blogger, who was supposed to be a bit part who would be posting stuff in the background, maybe aiding our hero. Then he just invited himself in, making himself at home until he got promoted to deuteragonist (secondary main character). This changed the course of the story entirely.

But sometimes, I start with some characters. The most notable character-first story is my NaNo from 2014, Secrets and Thieves. I had the general idea of "post-apocalyptic adventure," but there was no set plot until I brought in all these characters and figured out what they were bringing to the table. Two characters, a renowned spoon thief and a polio-stricken inventor, both originated in other stories before I transplanted them into this one. They were joined by a teenager running from an arranged marriage, a narcoleptic gunslinger, a small-town physician, and a man seeking revenge for his murdered family. I took all of these people, threw them together, and let them work out where their story would lead.

Either way, once I have a vague plot and some characters, they will play off of each other as the story builds.  Sometimes, I think I have a story figured out, but then a character comes in and informs me that the plot is going to go in a totally different direction. There have been times that I'll be writing along, and I'll be like, "Holy shit!" as something completely unexpected happens. You'd think I'd know what was going to happen, but half the time I'm as surprised as everyone else. And the plot can also change the characters. Sometimes, because something has to happen, it makes me realize something new about the characters. The whole process is very fluid.

I hope that answered the question without going off the rails too much.

1. "Don't you mean 'chicken or egg'?" Yes. But also no. It's a long story.

1 comment:

  1. Do not pee in the wind or eat yellow snow all good advice but with this insight into the amazing mind of a great writer. How do you then coral this wonderful imagination into a story. Do you set a guideline of musts or cannot's will not's do you ever think about the objective of these characters and where you want them to end up. I have heard some amazing tid bits of stories and as these wonderful stories dance around in your head like a movie do you ever try to guide characters to a clear objective ? Liker the assasinations do you know they are going to happen or do they get killed because they served their purpose. I enjoy great stories and the best stories have great leaps and bounds because the story teller knows just when to keep your interest and to send you on rabbit trail but not to far as to get back to the objective whatever that may be. Does Jake Barlow have an objective. You don't have to tell what it is as that is the authors power they know and you have to live through the story to find out what it is. How do you pick the objective when you come up with a character or do you?