The old chicken/egg conundrum. Should a writer start with plot? Should a writer start with character?
There are stories that are predominately character driven. They’re heavy on introspection and slow of pace. What actually transpires in the story–and it may not be much–is less important than the feelings and reactions of the viewpoint characters.
THREE WOMEN AT THE WATER’S EDGE by Nancy Thayer is such a book. I haven’t read it in years, but I think it’s nearly all sequel with next-to-no actual scenes. It’s a wonderful novel. The viewpoint characters–two sisters and their mother–are sympathetic women trying to feel their way forward into achieving new lives and new perspectives about themselves.
Then there are stories that are predominately plot driven. They’re heavy on action and swift of pace. What transpires in the story–the external plot line, if you will–is all that matters. The feelings and reactions of the protagonist are barely registered. There’s next-to-no growth within the protagonist, and practically no arc of change for that character.
For an example: take your pick among any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. These books are driven by the story problem, the political dynamics, the cat-and-mouse suspense games, and the stunts. Readers have been fascinated by 007 for decades, but not because of his inner angst or dimensional growth. (His huge appeal operates instead on an entirely different writing principle.)
Another example would be THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett. If you read that expecting to delve into the innermost workings of Sam Spade’s heart, you’ll be disappointed. If you read it for the mystery, the noir flavor, the convoluted twists and turns, and the quirky cast of character types, then it’s enjoyable.
My personal preference lies with stories that entwine character and plot so that I get two tales in one. There’s an internal story, with the protagonist being hit with some huge change in circumstances. The protagonist is then pushed from her comfort zone, forcing her to grow or adapt swiftly in order to cope with what’s happening. Her goal and decisions and attempts to solve her problem form the external story. Each story line–inner and outer–impinge on the other.
An example would be Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Elizabeth wants a husband. Because of that story goal, she attends a ball with the purpose of meeting and possibly attracting an eligible suitor. She meets Mr. Darcy and dislikes him on sight for his rude haughtiness toward her. Mr. Darcy’s opposing goal is that he does not want to be Elizabeth’s husband.
Every subsequent meeting delivers a clash of their strong personalities. Each clash works to alter their perceptions of each other until love wins over scandal, unequal social position, dreadful family members, and misunderstandings. Both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have grown as people while solving their various story problems.
Now, when writing or developing a story idea … whether you think of a plot event first or you choose to start with character design, what matters is that you understand the following two writing dynamics:
Plot derives from character goals and actions.
Character is altered by plot events and setbacks.