A Question of Character

Over the weekend I was reading through some fiction-writing advice articles here and there. I don’t think there’s a correct way to write fiction, so long as the author shows authenticity in the finished work. Pants or plan, write in order or out of sequence, finish in a day or a year. Whatever works for you.

One thing that I find works for many people is coming up with characters first, and sketching them out, so as to build stories around them. It occurred to me recently that I almost never do this, and I wondered why.

There may be some deeply hidden psychological reason for it, or it may be like my preference for tea over coffee, that is to say, it just is. Either way it’s not a conscious decision on my part.

I almost always start with a story or concept. A turn of events that I find interesting. More a plotter than a pantser, I’ll proceed to outline what happens, introducing characters to myself by naming them in said outline. My characters form somewhat after the fact, though. The type of people that would be most interesting to observe experiencing the concept or event that came to me in my initial brainstorm. My characters sort of emerge from the events I’ve decided to describe.

A distant second in terms of frequency of starting points for my fiction is setting. I’ll think a certain place or time, or even mood would make for a good piece of fiction. If it works, the events within that world show up, followed once again by the characters.

All by way of saying that characters almost never come to me first when writing. It’s also rare that a character steps out of my imagination independent of a story. I have no real characters in search of a plot within my notebooks or my mind. Even those that are the most faintly drawn for possible future projects are already attached to a story in the broadest sense. (Though I have a few barren story landscapes not yet populated with characters.)

When characters do present themselves to me at any point in the process, I almost never create character sketches. I hear fellow authors mention the invaluable nature of this tactic. “You have to know your character inside and out in order to know how to write their reactions to things.” Well, what can I say? I don’t.

Not that I eschew that method. As I said already, whatever works for any given author. Yet a preponderance of the evidence suggests to me so far that more authors among those who plan start with characters, and in many cases, detailed descriptions of same even before the author knows where said characters will appear.

Why is this so rarely the case for me, I wonder. Is it because my actual perceptions of the real world tend to start with circumstances as opposed to people? Is my natural reluctance to talk about myself with most people somehow connected to my reluctance to delve into every minute detail of a character I’m creating for a story? I’ve even thought that some of it has to do with respect for privacy, if you can believe that. I tend to relate to real people without prying into the details of their life right away, preferring to let them share what they think ought to be shared at any given time. Maybe I am the same with my very own characters…preferring to let them reveal aspects of themselves in an organic fashion even to me. I will steer things, as the author, when needed, but not as often as you may think.

It may even have to do with the relationship I have with my characters. There are always exceptions, and anything is possible in the future, but I tend to have a business-like relationship with my characters. In most cases I respect them, appreciate them, even feel thankful to some of them. Yet I don’t feel obsessed with them, nor do I feel them constantly begging and pleading for attention. I show up for work on a story when it’s time, and so do they, usually. We seem to respect one another’s “time,” if I may get all meta on your for a moment.

The more I think about both this relationship I have and this process I undertake in pursuit of characters in my fiction, the more odd it seems. As a reader, I love character most, I think. I can hold on with a mediocre work longer if I like the characters. Yet if I don’t like spending time with the people in a novel, even the “villains”, I’m far less forgiving of plot holes and turgid writing. So one would think characters would be the center of my writing experience from the beginning, instead of (hopefully) becoming so by the end.

I will say that in the single stage play I’ve written, characters were more in the forefront from the start than plot, but that may not count. Character is everything in the theatre. Real breathing people have to present characters on the stage, as opposed to in fiction where characters exist in one’s mind only.

Writing has gone a bit slow for me of late, what with the former Novel 2  now on ice. Perhaps I’ll experiment with “character first” writing- come up with a few characters that have no home, just for the sake of doing so. For the exercise, if nothing else. Then I can see if they will open up an idea for a whole story or novel once they exist more fully. It never hurts to experiment.

What about you writers out there…which aspects of a fiction do you tend to explore first? Character? Setting? Plot? Something else?


  1. This is probably a good skill, one that let you do that mystery NaNo novel I remember you blogging about before. I sometimes start with concept. I often don’t hang on to my plots, though, since I am a bad plotter and I know I will end up changing things.

    Actually…I liked my writing process for the last NaNo I successfully completed. I wanted to base it on a fairy tale and go more broadly with fairy tale elements. I researched many fairy tales, characters, and tropes and then incorporated them into the plot. I made pieces that I had to fit into the puzzle, and it worked so much better to build my plot around them. Perhaps something like your method is something I will have to try more sometime.

  2. This did come in handy with the mystery, not that I think of it. Although, the nature of the genre and of Nano meant I was burning extra fuel on all engines in the plot department, even for me!

    I have never done what you mentioned you tried with fairy tales. Not exactly. But I have thought about taking a single character from old folk tales, or even more shadowy history, and building a more modern character around their traits and live experience in order to have a starting point.

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