Thursday, September 30, 2010

Discussion Panel - Plot or Character, Which Comes First?

I’m starting a new feature for the blog – panel discussions around common issues that authors face.  I think it’s a great way to get a unique perspective inside the author’s mind and I thank each one of them for taking time out of their busy schedules to participate in today’s discussion.

Today’s panelists are: Philip Chen, Tonya Plank, Daphne Coleridge, TL Haddix, Danielle Bourdon and Consuelo Saah Baehr.  

Our first question was posed by Philip Chen:
When conceptualizing a new book, do you start with the story and the populate the plot with characters or do you have a specific character(s) and let the story surround them?

Philip Chen
When I write, I usually start with one character who is placed into a situation.  Once there, the character starts by responding to his environment and the story progresses.  So I guess I start with the character(s) and then let the story unfold as each of them starts telling some aspect of the overall story.  As the need arises for more characters to fill in the gaps to the story, I will introduce them and they will develop as the story goes on with their own particular point of view.  As the story develops, my job is to integrate these individual stories into one coherent novel.  As a result, some characters may find themselves diminished in significance and others gain greater strength.  This is what happens to the main "starting off" character in Falling Star, Mike Liu, who becomes only one of an ensemble cast toward the end of the novel.
Kindle book link for Falling Star, (The Watchers):

Tonya Plank:
For me, it depends on the project. With my first book, I started with the main character. My first book, Swallow, is about a young female attorney with a psychosomatic disorder called Globus Hystericus. I created the character and her main conflict first. I had the character in mind as someone who's very accomplished but still has very little self-esteem; she's from a small-town, working-class background and through hard work winds up graduating from a prestigious law school, getting a big lawyer job in Manhattan and then being surrounded by all of these very privileged people who talk down to her in ways that neither she nor they fully understand and that really eats away at her sense of self (there are gender issues as well, stemming from her father's job as a pornographer and his treatment of her). Anyway, I created the character first, and her disorder and its various ramifications, and then let her work out her problem, from figuring out what it stemmed from through a psychologist, to taking positive actions to doing something about it. I didn't really know how she was going to work it out from the start.

But with my second novel, which I'm currently working on, I'm doing the opposite. I was really affected by a trial I covered. It was a shooting, and all the witnesses had a different perspective, and I found even when they conflicted with one another, they were all valid; just different. And there were lot of racial issues involved, and testimony that really stunned me. I just felt there were so many important issues and so many things that floored me about that trial, that I needed to write about it. So, now I'm creating a story around that. But I'm really creating my own original characters and developing their back stories, giving them entire lives of their own, rather than working from the real people involved. I have enough experience with my former job as a public defender to create full characters on my own. But I have to say it's much harder doing it this way, and the ultimate story about how the shooting happened may change!

Thank you to Philip for asking such an excellent question!
The Kindle store link to Swallow:

Danielle Bourdon:
I start with the characters first, usually, and build the story around them. Thus far in my novel writing, I've never thought too far ahead, or plotted out scenes or huge arcs. I have a vague concept and use that as my jumping off point, then let everything else take shape as I go. Sub-characters come along as I'm writing.
There has been a time or two that I've had an idea crop up when I'm least expecting it, so I'll jot the twist or turn down on paper (or whatever's handy) so I don't forget. Other than that, I just wing it!
Kindle Store link: Bound by Blood:

Daphne Coleridge:
This is an interesting question to answer because it invites us to consider whether a writer begins the creative process with a character or with a storyline and if it is possible to develop the work logically from either point. I wonder if writers could be divided broadly into the logical and the intuitive in approach – either way being equally valid and effective. The intuitive may begin with little more than a swarm of impressions, images, and scenarios that swirl about their brain and eventually coalesce into an organic whole in their own time. I’m far from convinced that all writers know where their work is going when they begin to write. I find nothing in The Hobbit to convince me that Tolkien had envisaged Middle Earth and all its history which he went on to describe in such spectacular detail in Lord of the Rings.

As for J. K Rowling; the two dimensional, archetypal “mean” teacher that is Snape bears no relationship to the subtle, restrained, flawed yet heroic character of her final two books. In other words, I think writers often begin with a germ of an idea or a ghost of a character and then, somehow, the work takes on a life of its own. I believe there are also writers who plan their work meticulously and have both plots and characters under tight control, ending up with brilliantly clever work. I belong to the “intuitive” school and begin a book with no more than a vague notion and a sharpened pencil. There is no “right” way to go about writing a book – and that is the joy of being an author – especially when your characters do drag you to places you did not expect to go.
Kindle store link for The Artists Model:
Kindle store link for Purple Lake:

T.L. Haddix:
For my Leroy’s Sins series, the characters definitely come first, at least since book two.  Book one was a little nebulous on the subject of which came first, but I knew as soon as I started making notes for book two that it was based around two specific characters, Beth and Ethan.  Book three is the same – I know who the primary characters are going to be.  I’ve not really sat down and started writing it yet, so I’m not sure what the story is, exactly, but I know who the players are. 

For my non-Leroy stuff – short stories, comic books, etc., it tends to be the opposite.  The story seems to form first, at least a rough idea of what I want to accomplish.  After I come up with that, I have to figure out what kinds of people are going to populate the story.  Who would the character have to be in order to accomplish X,Y and Z?  Would a person who kidnaps people and kills them, for example, be the same kind of person who is a pillar of the community?  Why or why not?  How would the people around this person react when they found out?  Would they be surprised, or would they nod knowingly?  So, in that case, the needs of the story lead to the development of the characters. 
Kindle store link, Secrets In The Shadows:
Under the Moon Shadows:

Consuelo Saah Baehr:
When a book idea shoves its way into my consciousness, it is always through the sensibilities of a strong central character.  The character checks in with a specific "voice."  The character stands there and declares:  I am this person.  I act and talk and feel this way because of everything that has happened to me up to this point.  I am about to have an important emotional event, maybe it will be a transformative event and if you listen to me, I will help you write about it.

The first fifty pages are a self-conscious effort to capture the "voice". If the voice sounds right,  the supporting cast "appears" as needed. I make no conscious effort to create anyone.  They just appear.  I know this sound like BS, but it is true for me. Along the way some characters become more important than others, but always the populace is there to create an ambiance through which the main character acts, reacts, lets herself be known, presents her view of life and values, etc.
Kindle book link:  Daughters:

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