Characters First or Story First?

One of the fantastic questions I was asked the other night when speaking at a library event had to do with whether to build stories around plot lines or characters. If you’ve ever heard me talk about writing before, you may already know my answer to this. If not, prepare to be surprised! Because my opinion on the topic is this: The plot really doesn’t matter.

Before you get all offended on me, let me explain. Okay, the plot maybe does matter, but in the end it’s not really that important. The crux of your story shouldn’t be the death of the villain or who gets the girl in the end or whether or not your hero gets accepted to that Ivy League college. All of that is just extra material. Don’t believe me? Think about this:

What’s the best book you’ve ever read? One that made you shut the cover and just think Wow, when you finished reading it. Well, I can bet that wow didn’t come from one epic sword scene or the crowning of the king at the end. That may be the first thing you think of, but that’s not really why you liked that book. You fell in love with that story because you felt a connection to the people that it was about. You cheered when they succeeded and cried when they hurt. You laughed at the funny things they thought and said, and your stomach flipped just like theirs did when the perfect guy carried out the perfect proposal and everything ended happily in the last chapter. Or else you bawled your eyes out at the death of the hero’s best friend, because you just couldn’t imagine going through that kind of pain and sorrow.

Well, if that’s the case, you need to give serious props to whoever wrote that book that made you fall so hard. Because that author has got it right. The best stories are the ones where the reader walks away with a connection to the main characters. The kind of connection where those characters aren’t just pawns in some kind of epic plot or distractions to keep us entertained between the intense pivotal scenes. Rather, they are people. They have hopes and dreams and quirks that we love them for. And what we as readers enjoy most about our favorite stories is the opportunity to re-watch over and over again their amazing transformations. Because they grow and change and flourish, and that is exciting to view.

As a writer, your main responsibility is to create that connection. You want for your readers to feel for your characters. And that’s not going to happen if you don’t feel for them yourself. You have to view your characters as something more than just figments of your imagination. It’s more important than that. They behave in ways that you don’t, and do things you’d never dream about. Therefore it’s important for you to understand them.

This may sound really weird to those of you who have never written fiction before, or who view their characters as a flat, two-dimensional object. They’re just words typed out and written on a page, nothing but stark black letters against a white background, and can change pretty much however you want them to. If that’s how you think, then stop. If that’s how you really view your characters, then your story will never have the heart that you want it to.

The most important part of developing your story is developing your characters. Push past the surface and the stale clichés you may have given them. The handsome jock, the lonely orphan, the spoiled brat. They are more than that. They have pasts and stories and circumstances that have made them the way you are. And you need to figure out what those circumstances are. And how are they challenged because of them? What are they hoping to accomplish in life? What are their hopes, and goals, and fears? Once you can figure all this out, you have a story. And once you have a good story, you have the potential for a good book. It doesn’t have anything to do with a bank robbery or a sword fight. It has to do with what the feelings and emotions are that pushes those characters to commit a robbery or participate in a sword fight. And what are they hoping to accomplish after that?

One thing I remember being really convinced of when I was filling out my character chart for Allie. Allie was going to have rough hands. Since she was looking after her mother, her hands were the ones subjected to burns and cuts and bruises. Her mother’s hands were white and smooth. Hers were rough and worn. Even though this particular aspect wasn’t a huge part of the book, it was very crucial to my development of Allie’s character. Her story was a story of rough hands. It was about endurance and toughness and not letting anyone see her cry. She wasn’t a soft hands kind of person. Once I realized this, other parts of the story started clicking together in my mind. She would respond to certain situations like a calloused hand. She wore her toughness like a blister, hiding the soft skin underneath. Instantly, I knew exactly how here reactions to certain circumstances and plot twists would be.

I feel like this is one of those blog entries where I’m really rambling. Sorry if you’re having difficulty following me. It’s just that this is one subject where I am really passionate. There is nothing that makes me cringe more than writers asking for advice on their plot development, when they should be asking to help develop their characters.

Life doesn’t work as a series of plots. Life is the stories of individuals, and what those individuals think and feel about the things that happen to them. Make your stories the same way. Take time to care about your characters as people. Think about habits you’ve already given them, and consider where those habits may lead. Once you push past the exterior and really take a look inside these characters, you realize that they are a lot deeper than you may have thought. They have hopes and dreams and fears.  Every little thing that they have gone through has shaped them into who they are today and prepared them for the trials they are facing right now. They have a story to tell, a story that you have to record. And even though you know you can’t do it justice, you have to write it anyway.


P.S. I posted some photos from my book signing the other night, as well as my latest vlog, on my Facebook page! Check it out!


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  1. * Laura says:

    Awesome writing advice Rachel! I love the bit about the calloused hands. I’m still looking for that Eureka! moment with the main character of my WIP, but I’m sure it will come in time. In the meantime thanks for giving us a reminder of what’s really important. 🙂

    | Reply Posted 6 years, 2 months ago
  2. * Alyson says:

    This is a great post. This is what I needed to hear. Thanks!

    | Reply Posted 6 years, 2 months ago
  3. * Anne-girl says:

    Hooray! Amen and amen! Characters are people, plots are what happen to people. The first is always always always the most important.

    | Reply Posted 6 years, 2 months ago
  4. * Jordanna says:

    Fantastic post! Thanks Rachel!

    | Reply Posted 6 years, 2 months ago
  5. * Paulina Czarnecki says:

    This is so true! 🙂

    | Reply Posted 6 years, 2 months ago
  6. * Emily says:

    Oh, wow! This is so true, and yet I almost didn’t realize it before. Thanks for the advice, Rachel(:

    | Reply Posted 6 years, 2 months ago
  7. * ~SecretPrivilege . . . says:

    All this is really true, I love your brilliant sight of writing . . .

    | Reply Posted 6 years, 2 months ago
  8. * Taralyn says:

    This is a gem of a post. So, so true. Would that they taught this properly in writing books.

    You’ve got it, girl!

    p.s. I am giant fan of you 😉 You’re an inspiration!

    | Reply Posted 5 years, 9 months ago

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