How do you start writing your story? What creates that spark of interest that makes you commit your time and energy to a project? Every writer has their own peculiar modus operandi. Some free-write while others outline, some write chronologically while other start at the end and work their way backwards. The genus of an idea and how that idea is developed is also unique to each writer. However, I have noticed a general trend among my friends who write and authors who discuss their creative process. I speak in generalities and understand there are exceptions to every rule, but, in my experience, this trend creates two groups of writers: Plot Writers and Character Writers.
Plot writers are people like my father who come up with an idea for a story and focus on fleshing out the plot first. The characters are secondary, accessories to the plot and take a back seat in the development process. Plot writers usually have tight, well-structured stories, but their characters start with a feeling of flatness and seem to be more easily changed to fit the needs of the plot. A lot of times the characters remain fairly flat, such as in older science fiction novels. The stories and worlds are fascinating to me, but I rarely have an empathic connection with the characters. Plot writers focus on the idea of the story, asking questions like, “What if someone saw demons in mirrors? What if only that person could see them? What if they were trying to come out of the mirror? What would happen then?” There is a focus on events and “If…then…” thinking rather than having a story develop through character interaction. My father has confessed to always having a problem creating convincing, life-like characters, but the plot of the story he rarely has any trouble with.
I, on the other hand, am a character writer. When I come up with a story, I focus on fleshing out the characters first and the story blossoms like a vine from there. Sometimes I even end up having to create an entire universe just to give the fascinating character I made something worthwhile to do. Even if I have the skeleton of a story, character development takes precedence. For example, about a year ago, I had this image of a girl with white hair dressed entirely in black and white, who always wore dark glasses, had some level of OCD, and ate peanut M&Ms. Her name was Blanche, and I was so interested in her back-story that I decided to write about her. My questions that drove the creation of the story were ones like, “Why does she only dress in black and white? Why does she wear glasses all the time, even at night? What does she do for a living? Is there another person like her out there, a nemesis of some kind?” As a result, character writers like myself, or my friends Foxglove Zayuri and Birde Williams, find that characters come to us very easily, but filling plot-holes, or coming up with a plot at all, can be very difficult.
If you compare the internal monologue of a plot writer versus a character writer, you can see that plot writers tend to ask questions starting with “What if?” and character writers start their questions with “Why?” The pursuit of the answers to those questions (answers that make logical sense within the context of the world) is what fuels the creative process. Writers are tenaciously curious. Even if we are not actively asking questions, just sitting quietly observing or reading, a part of our minds is always mulling over information while a little niggling voice whispers, “Why? Why not? What if this happened? Take note of this. Research this more thoroughly. Oh, this would work perfectly for that!” No wonder creative folk have the reputation of being quirky.
Of course, if a story is going to be compelling, it need to have both an inventive, tightly-woven plot and believable, animated characters. A story can limp by with one or the other; witness the original Star Trek series which had poor plots but superb characters or Frank Herbert’s Dune which has an amazing premise and world populated with characters made of cardboard. However, the two elements combined create the best and most compelling mixture of drama. Some writers have the good fortune to have both character and plot come easily to them, or they collaborate with other authors to maximize their strengths. For example, in my opinion, Andre Norton created wonderful plots for her stories, but her characters felt less than real. But when she collaborated with other, more character-oriented authors like Mercedes Lackey or Lyn McConchie, the characters come to life, invigorating the story.
However, most of us have to work at one or both of these areas. As a character writer, I must remember to address the plot while plot writers like my father must not neglect their characters. This can involve collaboration, consulting with other writers with different strengths and weaknesses, plenty of practice and research, and constant vigilance. It’s a tricky balance, but as a writer, you owe yourself, your audience, and your characters the best story you can possibly craft.