Chicken or Egg, Plot or Character – Which Comes First?
by Robert W. Walker w/help from 4 Pen Names
Once again ACME welcomes the 4 Aliases to a roundtable discussion with moderator Rob Walker. These are Stephen Robertson, author the Decoy Series (www.Fictionwise.com), Geoffrey Caine, author the Abe Stroud archeological horror series (www.Fictionwise.com), Glenn Hale, author of Dr. O, a serial killer romp, and Evan Kingsbury, author of Fire & Flesh and FleshWar – tales of spontaneous human combustion and the creature behind it all.
Rob: So today’s topic, gents, is what comes first for you – the plot or the character? How do you begin with the blank page?
Geoff: Abe Stroud had to be for me a fully realized character in my head before I could proceed, so with Curse of the Vampire (re-titled Vampire Dreams for FicionWise), I truly began with character. I knew that Abe had to carry the weight of at least three books on his shoulders, so he had to be fully internalized. I had to own him to begin this series.
Glenn: Dr. O was pure plotting from the get-go. The idea was to have the evil-doer, Dr. O himself survive and be the continuing thread to sustain a series, but I’m afraid it ended abruptly due to circumstances beyond my or Dr. O’s control. I placed heavy emphasis on plot twists and turns, and as to the main characters, well they were there to support the plot points. So Geoff and I went in opposite mode it would seem.
Evan: So much of what Rob did in his early career taught me to focus on both, that plot and character must go hand in hand, glove in hand so to speak. That THIS particular hero or heroine, as in his Dr. Jessica Coran is the perfect fit for this particular story. So in Fire & Flesh I tried to strike a balance between the two, never questioning which was more important, as they were equally important. I carried this idea on in the sequel now up at Amazon.com/shorts – FleshWar which we decided to place under Rob’s name and dispense with mine; however, to be sure, I wrote the thing.
Stephen: I agree with what all my bro’s here have said, but like Geoff, with the Decoy Series and The Handyman—which all utilized the same main character, I had to truly be at one with Ryne Lanark and to understand the depth of his anger, frustration, and vengeance to make it work. Each book saw one more on his list of to-do’s done, and his to-do list was an unofficial hit-list against those who’d murdered his family, which he must avenge while doing Decoy work for the Chicago PD. I modeled him on a real life actor who had gone through the same horror in the real world but who had gone back to Hollywood and his life as an actor. In the Decoy books, he leaves acting to pursue a career as a Decoy detective in his quest to find and execute those who’d murdered his parents and sister closing time one night at their family bar. So I really had to get into Lanark’s head for this plot to work.
Geoff: What about you, Rob? What’s your MO when you’re not writing from some pen name like me?
Evan: Yeah, Rob! Give it up! Inquiring minds wanna know what YOU do now that you’ve pretty much dispensed with us?
Rob: Hey, guys—never say never. Who knows, one day I may need you.
Stephen: He’s evading the question.
Glenn: Does that a lot. Come on, Rob, out with it. The chicken or the egg? What comes first when you reach into your repertoire of tricks?
Rob: The moderator is s’pose to remain gagged, guys. But I can see from your stern faces and Glenn’s cocked gun that I’d best say something. Here goes: When I was young, foolish, impetuous the story came first—the plot was all and everything and the characters were often forced to play their parts within the context of a story that unfolded in twists and turns and plot points. Along the way, I discovered some truths and I matured as a writer; I discovered for instance that setting can be made to be as important a character in the story as any other character, whether it be Chicago today or Chicago of 1893, Hawaii, New Orleans, London, Salem Village 1692, etc. . .
I also learned that like setting, the MOST important element of the novel is dialogue, as it is pacing, as it is all elements of storytelling as in CHARACTER.
Glenn: Told you he’s evasive.
Rob: No, no! I am telling you that the longer you write, the truer this becomes that you must juggling and balance all of the myriad elements of storytelling—action and pause, point and counterpoint, humor and pathos, and so it makes sense to think that character and plot must be as balanced as well the engineering of a bridge to span a gorge. Like Evan so eloquently put it, character is married to the plot like hand in glove, and plot is married to character. No one but Inspector Alastair Ransom, who did not pop full-blown from my head without long, serious work, research, trial and error, could have pulled off City for Ransom as he did. Hell he is in the title which is balanced with the setting.
Evan: You taught me the term fully-realized character as you did plot dynamic, and that even in a horror story that characters must be “up to the challenge” of the ordeal we put them through. That shallow or cardboard cut outs won’t do in any novel in any category.
Glenn: Look at ’im. He’s blushin’ yous guys.
Rob: Just put the gun down, Glenn . . . Glenn?
Stephen: I get that too, that the fully-realized character is one the author has lived with for a long time, and perhaps for the best results a new author, eager to write out that plot should take a step back and spend more time with the hero or heroine, or even the villain in that regard.
Evan: To create the perfect villain for that particular plot is as important to the story as crafting the hero, exactly. So in essence, you gotta spend time with the monster in his lair as well.
Rob: I’ve always preached this, but have not always practiced it. When I started out, getting the entire story down on paper and out of my head made sense—from page one to end, boom, boom, boom. The more I wrote, however, the more I slowed that process down so as to include far more setting and dialogue and characterization, far more of “what a character says, does, and thinks equaling to WHO he or she is.”
Geoff: I have it on good authority, Rob, that you don’t write in a straight line anymore but more in the fashion of a parobabla—two chapters, three forward, go back, rewrite, forward to four, five six, go back, rewrite to that point, forward, back, forward, back etc.
Rob: This is true. If experience has taught me anything it is multiple rewriting is writing, and this way each time I look at a scene, I get more of the five senses triangulated into that scene.
Evan: And more character development as a result, so that the fully-realized good guy or bad girl (worst female serial killer of all time—Lauralie in Final Edge!) is revisited not just in your head but on paper, so the READER can fully-realize him or her as well.
Glenn: Me . . . I never cared for all that psychological layering on of characters. (lowering gun) Didn’t care and look where it got me?
Rob: Frankly, yous guys, I have never written a novel I haven’t learned from, so believe me when I say that all of you—including you, Glenn—have taught me my craft—along with a cadre of authors over the years! We learn from reading the masters, and reading as a writer reads, and we learn from doing—putting characters on stage in their element and giving them the opportunity to walk, talk, and muddle over life, the setting they find themselves in, the circle of acquaintances they interact with—the all important minor characters who also must be fully-realized.
This concludes our discussion on what comes first, plot or character, the age-old rub. All five of us sincerely hope that we’ve shed some light on the matter for YOUs GUYs.
Hoppy, Hoppy Writing –
Rob Walker and the boys
PSI – echelonpress.com
For sneak peek previews of my noir suspense novel DEAD ON contact me through Glenn at the club – inkwalk at SBCglobal dot net
For sneak peek at next historical suspense work in progress BLOODROOT contact is the same, bada bing!