Story Ideas: What Comes First, the Characters or the Story?
by Molly Blaisdell
Creating a Viable Story Idea
Many authors struggle to begin novels. Should the characters come first or should the story come first? The good news is that either start will work. The important part of this equation is that both pieces are needed to create a viable story idea. You must have compelling characters. You must have an interesting story. Without these two elements your project is basically stuck in the water. Let’s take a quick look at the genesis of both starts to get you on your way.
Sometimes a writer has a strong character in mind as a story start. The personality of character is clear in the writer’s head. The writer has a clear understanding of who this main character is and how she will react under pressure. This is a right brained approach to story construction. The story will grow organically around this character. Character starts tend to turn into stories with deep emotional development and strong creative content. In character starts, the writer will have to do some plot exploration to begin to build a story.
Understanding the World of the Character
Understanding the real world of this character and finding the point when everything changes for the character is the first step on the novel journey. Great novels make characters suffer. What could be the worst thing that happens to your character? This approach to story ideas is sometimes shored up by leaning on iconic plots to help the writer take a character on a journey. Many writers look to specific plot forms like the hero’s journey to help build a plot for a known character.
At other times, a writer has a powerful story idea. This idea is fully fleshed out from beginning to end in their mind, including what will happen, the order of events, and even the ending. This is a left brained approach to story writing. Mining real life can help this writer begin to develop characters for a story. Character charts, personality tests for the character, and searching out photo references will all help the writer build characters for a plot driven novels. The challenge with this approach is that the story can only go so far without the characters. You must know who things are happening to and why (motivation of the protagonist and antagonist). Also you must know how each character will respond to those things. The characters and their response often drive the plot. So the trick here is to differentiate between the plot and the story idea. The plot includes the details of what happens to whom. You can have a story idea without characters but it’s hard to have a plot without characters.
Discovering the secrets, faults, and dreams of a character are paramount for developing a novel from a story start. This writer must delve into the loves, hates and fears of a character. This investigation will reveal how the character will react in the face of the story problem. This writer will benefit from creating a map of a main character’s emotional development to aid with novel creation. Be aware a character will shape a plot. Powerful characters will bring depth and meaning to a brilliant story idea. They also may refine the plot plan for a novel. Writers must be flexible and ready for surprises.
Information provided by the Author Learning Center