Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Integrating Plot and Character

Never separate plot and character.  As you decide on the book you want to write, you must consider them at the same time because you will want certain characters for the plot you are creating.  Or a certain plot for the characters you have in mind.

Whichever you think of first, you must develop them together because there’s a synergy between these two elements of your story. You might think of a great story about a man who’s living alone in a mountain cabin and is visited by space aliens, but what’s he doing in that cabin?  Why is he alone?  How is he going to deal with little green men knocking on his door?  And the larger question–is the reader going to believe his reactions?

Let’s consider the beginning of your thinking process and the steps you go through when you start a book.

Even if you’re a completely right-brained writer, and you work very intuitively, the steps are in there somewhere.  You just might not consciously think about what they are.

Because I’m a very left-brained, or logical, writer, I can describe my primary considerations before I wrote my first werewolf book, KILLING MOON.

For years I had an idea in mind.  What if a werewolf detective used his wolf senses to solve crimes?  The main character Ross Marshall, came to me first. A macho werewolf filled with angst about his relationship to humanity.

His specialties are tracking missing persons and sneaking into environments where a man couldn’t easily go.  But by the same token, he’s got the disadvantage of sometimes being a wolf at the wrong place and the right time.

Once I knew enough about Ross, I began plotting his story. In KILLING MOON, Ross is tracking a serial killer.  He also wants to investigate his genetic heritage, which brings him into contact with the heroine, a physician who works at a genetics lab.  She’s got her own problems because the lab is being sabotaged by someone.  Ross and Megan are drawn to each other, but she knows there’s something strange about him, and he’s fighting his attraction tooth and claw because he doesn’t want to drag a woman into the kind of miserable life his mom led with his low-life werewolf dad.

Five years ago, Ross tore out the throat of a serial killer the police wouldn’t go after, and he’s sworn never to kill again.  Then the killer he’s currently stalking captures Megan, and he’s forced to break his vow to save her life.

In my planning process, I gave my hero internal and external problems to solve. And I also designed a heroine with traits that pulled him toward her and at the same time pushed him away.

Once you have a basic idea, you need to decide on your focus.  What kind of book are you writing? For example, I considered making KILLING MOON the first book in a detective series. Then I realized I’d be better off going with romantic suspense, since I wanted the romance to play a big part in the story. This meant I couldn’t keep the focus on Ross Marshall in subsequent books. But he could play a strong secondary role in other books about his brothers and cousins. And his cousin, Cole Marshall, is the hero of my recent indie release, DARK MOON.

Which do you usually think of first–plot or character? And why?

This is an enormous subject. More next time.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick


  1. Ross really came alive for me as you described how you created him. Fascinating stuff--it gave me great insight into how your thought process worked and how the plot fitted his character so well.

  2. Ross is one of my favorite characters, FYI. For me, the character comes first, as a rule. Well, the main protagonist, anyway. The character resides in my head, teasing me with glimpses of personality, of physical looks, of emotional status. Eventually, I'll coax a story out of him/her and I can start writing. Other characters then appear, offer up introductions, and explain where they fit into the plot. Sometimes, a character does that and then I discover that they don't really have a place in the plot. Unhappy creatures when that happens. I have one of those at the moment. She's a cool character, but the place I envisioned for her disappeared when the hero revealed his black moment. I have hopes I can incorporate her into the next book in the series but she's fuming at me. Oh, well.

    Voices? What voices? LOLOL

  3. I agree that you need to do plot and character together. I usually come up with a very basic theme first and then the characters spring from that. As the plot develops, so do the characters. Sometimes a character will "speak" to me and thereby change the plot. On rare occasions, I have to change a character or the character's motivation to that it fits into the plot better. Thanks for helping me think about this issue!

  4. Great replies. I love talking writing methods with other writers. Interesting, Silver, I've never come up with a character I couldn't use. Ross was a really strong character in my mind, and I worked hard to come up with the right story for him. Yes, he's one of my own favorite heros.

  5. Interesting question, Rebecca. Because I'm strong on character development, that generally drives the plot. In My Favorite Midlife Crisis Yet, I knew I wanted to write about a gynecologic oncologist--I was a medical writer for much of my career and that choice of profession for Gwyneth would add gravitas to her persona, I thought. But I also wanted to showcase the trials and triumphs of a number midlife women. The other two characters were cast in supporting roles at the beginning to enhance the journey of the doc. But their stories turned out to be so interesting, I devoted a good deal of space to them. Of course, their plot threads had to dovetail at the end with Gwyneth's. Sometimes the forces at play in the writing of a book are so intertwined that in retrospect it's hard tease out what sparked the story.

    1. Interesting, Toby. I always know what sparked the story,no matter what other elements get added in later. And there always WILL BE elements I don't think of until I am in the middle of writing the book.

      Yes, making your central character a oncologist and gyn was important to our view of her in the story.

  6. I always think character first. Then when I know what makes them tick, the plot sort of flows from that.

    1. Terri, I never completely know my characters until I get the plot going and have stuff start happening to them. Or, I have to write at least three chapters before I feel like I'm not "faking it" any more. I mean faking who they are.