Since there’s interest, here’s another post on writing stories. One perennial question (less here than elsewhere) is “Which came first, plot or character?” It also emerges as “Is this plot-driven or character-driven?” Another variation is “Do you get the idea first, or a character?” In other words, “We know you can’t get a chicken from an omelet, but did this omelet start with the egg or the chicken that laid it? And what part does the heat play, and the frying pan?”
Let’s start with ideas. Most writers find it easy to get “ideas”–that is, story-related thoughts resulting from accidental encounters with life-stuff: sights, sounds, situations, people, animals…anything. Usually (for me, anyway) it’s two to five such encounters that begin to form a cluster that sometimes, not always, suggests a story might come out of it. A striking face–a strip of cloth–a piece of jewelry–the smell of baking bread–a conversation overheard–the taste of a waffle with butter and maple syrup—the softness of fur–a favorite (or unfavorite) book….anything can spark an idea, as that sensory input interacts with others already stored in memory. Combining these bits and pieces with “What if?” can begin the process of arriving at “Yes, I have an idea for a story about this man/woman/child/alien who is [in a situation] and [does something.]
Ideas enter into storymaking throughout the process. You might, like Shakespeare, think of two young people from families who are enemies but fall in love and…then what? You need more ideas–not just the words, but the ideas behind the words. The young lovers have parents–what are they like? Will they appear in the story? What about the Nurse? What about the young man’s friends? What about the young woman’s brothers and cousins? The ideas don’t come all in a nice package…they’re coughed up (often with difficulty) along the way, to solve both the story’s problems and the writer’s.
So then… the ideas suggest something about the story. In the case of commercial writers who have a contract, the contract will state some parameters: “Military SF with female protagonist” for instance. So the writer says “Hmm, OK, female protagonist…military…has to have some basic qualifications for that occupation…” and starts feeling around in her head for someone who will fit. And someone interesting enough to carry multiple volumes…and someone complicated enough to generate plot for those volumes. (The writer knows by then that if she’s going to live with the character in her head for years, she doesn’t want a boring, simplistic, passive, nasty, or depressed person in there: she is already living with herself.)
As the character comes into focus, so does the character’s backstory–the chicken behind the egg. Except for the very rare novel about someone with amnesia (Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist, for instance, protagonists need backstory, far more than is shown directly to the reader. What kind of family did the protagonist come from? How does the character feel about that family and its place in society and its effect on the character? About other individuals in the family…and others that affected the character. How do the other family members perceive the protagonist? Natural hero? Born to go bad? Beautiful but dumb? Too passive? Annoying hyperactive know-it-all? What did the character succeed at before the story starts? Fail at? Do ordinary-OK at ?
Plot begins with a destabilizing event. That event can be a character’s sudden realization that something’s wrong (“I have to get out of my hometown or I’ll be trapped here waiting tables in the diner forever”) or an external force, the classic one rock that starts the avalanche when kicked off the trail, the avalanche that destroys the character’s home and family. But once it starts, the protagonist should have “agency”–should be actively doing things that advance the plot…although not all the things that advance the plot. If this is the protagonist’s story, and it should be, then the protagonist must have agency: must make decisions and perform actions that have a direct effect on the story.
Why? Because that’s the nature of plot…it is the “heat” that tries to make an omelet of the egg, that causes the egg to transform, and also the frying pan that contains it–the limitations of plot contain the character in contact with the first and subsequent destabilizations. Plot is, in one sense, the lens that enables the reader to examine the character…by revealing, in the character’s decisions and actions, what that character really is. No matter how carefully described, a character who does nothing–does not show volition–cannot be known as well as one who decides and acts. Without a character (an egg who doesn’t want to be an omelet, for example) plot isn’t Story. Without a plot (that destabilizing event, and those that follow) the character is a picture on a wall, motionless…again, not Story.
The challenge–and fun–of running a multi-viewpoint story with a suite of major characters through a long group of books is the need to provide them all with sufficient background, sufficient depth of character, and sufficient freedom to all exercise agency and all be moving the plot, each in his or her own way. Minor characters may seem to have agency, but you supply that when the need arises: if, say, you need someone to find a particular sword and bring it to the protagonist’s attention, you can invent the kind of person who would be carrying a mixed lot of swords in his wagon. But protagonists have it from the start, because the writer provided it. And since they do, a group of them will take the plot into more complicated and (to me) interesting directions than just one. Yet it must still be a plot, to be satisfying as Story, and that means the “frying pan” must function as the shape and the boundary that holds the plot together, without violating the characters’ own nature and agency.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to understand all this to write the story. That’s the advantage of reading stories, and listening to stories, as early as possible and as much as possible. The fundamental structure of Story becomes natural long before someone can write one. Reading widely–across genres, across defined age ranges, across (if possible) nationalities–allows you to know, without conscious analysis, the wide variety of ways writers approach Story. A frying pan has one familiar shape, but you can cook many things in it. Omelets alone come in great variety. Any given writer may prefer to enter Story with a plot, or with a character or with an idea formed of a cluster of impressions…but in the end, Story requires both character and plot…and enough impressions to make the story feel alive, real, present in the reader’s mind.