Writing: The Plot – Character Paradox

What came first: the character or the plot?

It’s one of those kinds of questions, which everyone has a different answer to, and one to which I can’t give you any proof for either side. What I can do is give you some examples, and see if they make any sense at all.

The great thing about characters, and also the worst thing, is that sometimes they write themselves. I am of the belief that you never truly create any character. I believe they come to you, willing to tell you their story, to put their life in your hands. You may not know everything about them at first. You may not even know where they came from or what their true intentions are. But, little by little, they give you more and more information, until you finally and fully understand who they are.

The character, then, being a living entity which you cannot control, often does that really annoying trick of pulling the tablecloth from under you. You might think you have a particular part of the plot sussed, or you think you know where it’s going, and all of a sudden your character will do something rash and unpredictable and you have to move around them. Or, no matter what you do, you can’t make your character do what you want, because it isn’t in their nature.


Example One: Delphi and the Air Stone

Without ruining any of the plot for those who haven’t read it yet, there is a particular scene in ‘Against the Elements’ in which I struggled enormously with her great sense of pacifism. After all the heroics, the battles, Delphi reaches the kingdom of Air. And sits and does nothing for almost half a chapter.

At the time, I was furious with her. There’s a world to save! People are relying on you! What are you doing sitting down and waiting?

Waiting? Yes. Waiting. Which is precisely what she did. She waited until the right solution came to her, and followed it through. I didn’t understand at first. When I got beyond that section, I realised that what she did was the smart thing, and that no amount of me forcing her onwards would have changed that.


Example Two: The Mystery of Onyx

I’ve written a very long series set in space, focusing on the adventures of a crew battling against mysterious forces. One of the main characters, Onyx, was a silent, still, solitary individual who would give me nothing to work with. I knew his characteristics and the way he behaved, but I never understood why.

The way the series works is in this fashion: each book follows a different crew member’s perspective, and so every book offers new light on every character. It wasn’t until I reached Onyx’s novel that he showed me everything. The floodgates opened, and all at once I saw, and I knew him. Everything made such sense.


Plot, on the other hand, is no such demon. Plot either comes to you, or it doesn’t. Sometimes I sit for months waiting for the solution to a complex plot problem. Other times, I can write forever.

Remember my two WIPs? ‘Son of Songs’, the graphic novel, and ‘Circle’, the unslayable beast of a novel. ‘SoS’ I could sit and write until the world implodes. ‘Circle’, on the other hand, is lumbering on and on and on. I know both sets of characters equally well – neither WIP has a character as unwilling as Onyx to share their secrets with me – but somehow, ‘Circle’ is a massive struggle of plot proportions.

I am not one of those people who plans plot timelines, or has cards to help me along. Plot hits me with sudden bursts – or it evades me for weeks at a time.

Of course, these are just my observations. What do you think?

  1. gezza11 said:

    I think you empathize with characters, but plots are abstract 🙂

    • esmelc said:

      Agreed – but the empathy can’t drive the story alone.

  2. Your characters sound much like mine. These are their stories, and they’re letting me write them down. But they don’t always like to provide all the information I need. Or they’ll do it from a sideways angle rather than head on. But we find a way to make things work.

    Sometimes I envy organizers who can get everything laid out before they even write a scene. But I also love the thrill when a story takes a twist, or a character shows me how we’ll get over the stumbling blocks in the plot.

  3. esmelc said:

    When I was writing my dissertation, I planned – but never before, and never since. I don’t trust my own planning as much as I trust my characters. I know, even if they lead me down the garden path, we’ll get there eventually. Myself, I don’t believe in that much!

  4. Good question, which came first? I vote for neither- they can only co-exist. I agree with you: the story writes itself. Once you start, you can try to steer it, but it will correct itself eventually, if you always try to make it better.

    • esmelc said:

      Things can always be altered – with the character’s permission of course – or omitted. This is what I think constitutes as ‘plot’. The ‘story’, the character tells.

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