Friday, October 2, 2009

Which Comes First?

Inspiration can come in the strangest guises. It could be something you read in a newspaper or magazine. It could be a painting, or a wonderful photograph. It could be that odd-looking person walking down the street or that neighbour who insists on having arguments with their spouse outside so that the whole street can hear their issues. Every writer has a different answer, but which comes first; the character or the plot?

My first question is always 'why did whatever happen?' which means I have the beginnings of the plot and the beginnings of a character at almost exactly the same time. The first character I focus on is my victim. Why did he/she die? I don't write locked-room puzzles, the method is always very straight forward. It's the people that fascinate me. Why was murder the result? Was it for revenge? For money? For love? A combination? What was the situation that made somebody realize that murder was the only solution? This question will lead me to my plot...and of course, many more characters.

Peter Shaffer's play "Equus" was inspired by him reading a newspaper article about a similar crime. He never read anything else about that particular case, that one small article was enough to get his creative juices flowing. I've overhead snippets of conversations in the library or having coffee with a friend that have started my writer's brain bubbling. I love to watch people's body language. You can tell if someone is uncomfortable with a conversation by watching their reactions. See their weight start to shift back and forth from foot to foot? Did they just cross their arms? Are they looking at the other person or are they unable to make eye contact? And then when I get home the questions start: Why.....why....why?

Where do you start? Is it with a plot? An ending? A particular character? A setting?


  1. Great question, and one I wish I knew the answer to. Often, I'm like you, where the character and the plot come to me almost simultaneously--I honestly couldn't identify which came first. Of course, it's not the whole plot, but just the overall premise. Sometimes the great ending will appear at the start, sometimes not.

    For me, setting isn't an impetus.

    Word verification: downile. As in "I'm taking this raft downile, watch out for hippos."

  2. Usually, I start with the victim and the motive for the crime.

    I like to eavesdrop on people, too! :) But I was uncomfortable yesterday--I was out having breakfast with my sister and realized near the end of our visit that there was another writer in the room. He was an older man with a legal pad and damned if he wasn't writing down stuff about *me*! It was such a shock having the tables turned like that. But then, with my laptop, I don't feel like I'm that obvious...I'm hiding behind the screen a bit.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Alan; Thanks for sharing the word verification; that gave me a nice giggle.

    Elizabeth; That would be unnerving! I also hide behind the laptop, but when it's not with me I always have a small notebook and pen in my purse!

  4. Elspeth -
    You always have the most interesting "food for thought!" My inspiration varies, actually. Usually, though, it comes from something I've experienced. For instance, years (and years ; ) ) ago, when I was in grad. school, I competed for an academic fellowship. Later, when I started to write, I thought, "What would it be like if a fellowship was so important that someone would risk everything for it?" That gave me the inspiration for one of the characters in one of my books. Once I thought of that character, I was able to build a plot that included her (although she's not the main character). Once again, you've given me something delicious to think about....

  5. Margot; If I give you "food for thought" your lovely comment was dessert. Thank you! (and that motive you mention is superb).

  6. I'm like you, the beginnings of character and plot usually occur simultaneously. That said, I'm in the very beginning of thinking about my next manuscript. So far I have two sisters, one a chef and the other a veterinarian. No plot. I've no idea if anything will come of it.

  7. Carol; It's a good beginning. Conflict could arise from one being a fervent vegetarian...

  8. All of the above. I never know how the story will make itself known to me, whether through character, plot, or maybe just the title comes first. I'm constantly thinking up titles. Then I make up a story to go with.

  9. Elizabeth; Wow. I never get the title first.

  10. With only two books (one published, one under consideration) to my credit, I don’t know how I begin, to be honest. Both books had a different genesis and no commonality. I think I like to start with a plot idea, and populate the plot with interesting people. But, that’s just a guess…or maybe wishful thinking.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  11. Hmmm. Like some of the others, I'm not quite sure. My ideas rarely come when I'm consciously thinking of them. Usually they come when I'm daydreaming, or trying to sleep. I think characters come first most of the time. Interesting post, I'll have to pay more attention to my thoughts :)

  12. Doesn't matter. Really. Whichever comes first, if it's damn good writing and sets up the other effectively, it'll be a good book. No set rules as to the order of chicken or egg - just make both of them delicious and real.

    The Old Silly

  13. Galen; I have no problem imagining you using different methods for each of your stories. You have a complex mind!

    Jemi; It is an interesting question, isn't it? The answer doesn't really matter in the great scheme of things.

    Marv; Of course it doesn't matter; it's just something to think about. The end result is what counts; not how you got there.

  14. It can be anything. Faking It came as the result of watching Sex and the City and my being shocked at the boldness of the conversation. The what-if was, what if a woman was so inhibited she doesn't know what she's supposed to know about sex? And what if she meets a guy who teaches her? And what if they become friends?

    My most recent manuscript is a very comical twist on something that happened to me.

    So is it plot first? Character first? I don't think so. It's simply a what-if. And the what-if takes whatever form it takes.

  15. Elisa; Wasn't Sex and the City fun? And more importantly....why don't I live in Charlotte's apartment???? I think what-ifs are great. It's the beginning of both plot and character. And hey...whatever works.

  16. I tend to start with a character, mostly the protagonist. That's quickly followed by plot.

    Straight From Hel

  17. What an interesting topic! When I look at my basket of ideas, I don't see any consistency. I'd say the most common method I seem to use is "what if". But not always. For instance, the mystery I've been trying to finish up grew from an idea I had for a character. And then a project I was doing for work, a hockey book, gave birth to a second character, about a month later.

    I love when an idea grows. I wish transforming that idea into a novel was just as easy!

  18. Helen; first character is always the victim.

    Ms. Bookish; "What ifs" are great. Thanks for stopping by! Hope to see you again.


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