August 16th, 2019

Character First

Oh, I know there are those of you who won't agree with me. You'll say plot is more important. I'll make my case with the beginnings of two popular plot-heavy stories.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth, but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping."

I love this opening - it tells you so much. About the character, setting and even a foreshadowing of what's to come. The whole first chapter lays out the world, and so much about Katniss, just by showing how she interacts with it. Brilliant.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis

"ONCE there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office. He had no wife and he lived in a very large house with a housekeeper called Mrs Macready and three servants. (Their names were Ivy, Margaret and Betty, but they do not come into the story much.) He himself was a very old man with shaggy white hair which grew over most of his face as well as on his head, and they liked him almost at once; but on the first evening when he came out to meet them at the front door he was so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it."

ALL character.

Only two examples, but you get the idea. So WHY is it so important to start with a character?

Imagine this. You're on your way to to work, and you come upon a car accident in an intersection. Two cars, head on. Glass and debris scattered everywhere. What do you think/feel?

  • Hope no one has been hurt
  • Has someone called 911?
  • There's a bad start to someone's day
  • Great, this is going to slow me down
  • Where are the cops?

But what do you think/feel if you recognize one of the cars - it's your best friend's! BAM! Whole new level of stress, right?

That's the difference with starting your scene with 'crisis' as opposed to 'conflict'. Conflict is always better (conflict requires character). Think about it: If we don’t empathize with the character, we don’t care what happens to them.

And it only takes a detail or two.

Example:

 Alarm jangling, she cranked the wheel right to full-stop, but the river still expanded in the windshield. Shit. She was going in. There’d be no help; she was the only one stupid enough to be out in an ice storm. But her swelling eye care of Brad’s fury made that impossible. When you decide you’re finally leaving for good, you don’t check the weather first.

Are you invested in this character getting out alive? Yes. Why? You have empathy for her situation. In one paragraph, you understand her motivation, goal and conflict. It's not hard to do - see how a few details make all the difference?

When I'm writing, I always start from character. I may even have a scene in my mind, but the character comes first - that way, I'm assured constant conflict. Because the plot becomes making them face their worst fears, right? I've written:

An orphan who learned early and well, not to trust her and her sister's lives with anyone. After she has to turn her sister over to mental health professionals, the only opportunity she has is for a career where she has to rely on others for her safety. Days Made of Glass

A former Army medic with PTSD can't work with soldiers in pain anymore. She cares too much. She takes a job with Sports Medicine for the Professional Bull Riders, because she'll never care about spoiled, overpaid sports stars. Except her logic doesn't work. Sweet on You

A damaged young woman, running from a Cartel, takes a job in a small town where she meets a Navajo who's determined to help his tribe and keep his bloodline pure. She can't stay - he can't let her go. Home at Chestnut Creek

I promise, if you start with character first, you'll always have enough conflict to last the entire book.

Do you start with plot or character when you start a story? Why?

The second in Laura's Chestnut Creek Series, Home at Chestnut Creek, released July 2. It's getting fantastic reviews! Just click on the photo to get more info.

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34 responses to “Character First”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    For me, it's all about the characters. Good characters can make up for a weak plot, but weak characters won't do anything to help a strong plot. (Unless maybe you're Dan Brown, but he's ... Dan Brown. But that's also probably why I read only one Dan Brown book, and that was to see what the fuss was about.)

  2. Claire Gem says:

    I loved this post! A nugget of wisdom I intend to use, Laura. Thanks!

  3. You're preaching to the choir here, but this choir never tires of listening. Plot? That's an appeal to my mind. If you want all of me it's going to take a good character. Then you have me heart and soul.

  4. Winona says:

    I definitely needed this. I do begin with character, but this post had me making changes in my mind. Changes to strengthen several scenes. Thanks.

  5. You're a thousand percent right, Laura! Character rules. (And I say that even though I'm better at crafting plots than designing characters --- I get there in the end!)

  6. Julie Glover says:

    More than once, I've read an opening where things are happening that are big deals, but I don't really care because I don't know the people involved. Opening with just plot or crisis makes me feel like a bystander, while opening with character and conflict makes me feel like I'm in the main character's shoes. Such a difference!

  7. I LOVE this post! Could not agree more--character is the soul of story. I always say humans relate to humans, not just action.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Which is why, I think, even the thriller/action/adventure/political intrigue books do better if they have characters who are different, and relateable. Nodding at you, Harlan Coben. Thanks, Tiffany!

  8. Laura, that was delicious. Your wisdom fed my brain and my creative soul. I'm diving deep into an unexpected and unplanned project's first draft. The plot's pretty well in place. I open with a character (who's quirky, confident and inquisitive...and damaged, aren't we all?), but I'm going back in right now to ensure there's conflict right from the get-go. Thanks!!!

    • Laura Drake says:

      Is this the idea you got in China? Go for it, Chris!

      • Indeed, Laura, but it takes place in Japan. The working title is "The Secret of the Hiroshima Pearl." Here's the hook: An Asian-American girl retraces her great-grandmother’s journey during the Hiroshima bombing and falls in love along the way. My target audience is readers who love Lisa See’s novels. My goal is to deliver a tale with deep resonance to Memoirs of a Geisha and The Joy Luck Club. BIG challenge, I know. But, as they say, go big or ...

  9. johntshea says:

    I've enjoyed both kinds of opening, plotless characters or characterless plots, as long as they're interesting and soon introduce the missing element. Characterless plot openings work when I can imagine myself in the situation.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Oh, interesting, John! I'd love to see the first paragraphs of either of those openings.
      Would you post? Please? I want to learn something!

      • johntshea says:

        Characterless first paragraphs are actually quite common, but I was thinking of characterless first pages or even first chapters, which I have seen too. They're possibly more common in prologues, and/or novels where the setting, in time or place, is important enough to be almost a character in its own right. By 'characterless' I mean not introducing a person, not 'characterless' in the sense of banal and bland.

        Plotless character openings are usually internalizations and more common in self-consciously 'literary' novels. Of course, hardly anybody begins reading a novel 'cold' without knowing something about it's characters and plot from the cover or elsewhere. I don't have examples to hand but I'll have a look.

  10. Eldred Bird says:

    I get it when you say some people will argue for plot first, but I agree with you. If I don't connect with the characters pretty quickly, I'm not going to care about following them on their journey. I need to have at least a basic emotional connection to cling to before I feel some sympathy for their plight, so introduce me to you imaginary friend before you put their back against the wall.

  11. wendyleslie says:

    Okay "crisis" opening it is from now on. Thanks Laura.

  12. wendyleslie says:

    PS Does this great approach have anything to do with being a pantser (me too) and writing a story about characters which evolves into a plot.

  13. Fae Rowen says:

    It's funny how my writing has evolved over the past decade. A lot of that has to do with you, Laura, and our "throwdowns" here at WITS. I used to be solidly in the PLOT RULES camp, but now I understand about connecting with my characters. The truth is, I've always connected with my characters before I knew the whole plot. I used to start with action and crisis, but that changed into conflict when I finally understood that my critique partners didn't already connect with my characters like I did. And now, I'm thinking of dancing around the idea of plotting. Yipes!

  14. dholcomb1 says:

    I think I've always started with character.

    denise

  15. Ann G. says:

    I think the opening paragraph of my novel has both: "The young woman drew rapidly, sketching the old man on his knees in the street, with blood running down his face. A group of five young thugs wearing Nazi uniforms kicked and beat him, cheering each blow, their taunts mingling with the old man's screams. An angry cluster of civilians urged them on, stamping and shouting."

    What do you all think?

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