My husband has an idea for a book. It’s a great idea based on a bit of real-world technology that would make a cracking thriller. He’s been brewing this for a year or more. Finally, he asked me plaintively, “Okay, I’ve got the idea for the book, but how do I get the characters? How do I know who should be in it? The people would be different depending on where I take the plot, but the plot depends on the characters—which comes first?”
Welcome to my life.
I’m told some people get a character pop up and demand a story. For me it always starts with a nugget of inspiration: a setting, a weird historical fact, a concept. But how do you take a concept and add the characters? And when you have a concept and characters, what about a plot?
You see this go wrong a lot. Thrillers where it’s quite obvious that the author had a brilliant idea, worked out a plot to maximise it, and bolted in some plastic people to go through the required actions. Romances where an adorable pair of lifelike characters have a meet-cute and then not very much actually happens.
It is hard to do right. It feels really hard every time I start thinking about a new book. What’s it about, who’s in it, what’s going to happen? Which comes first?
Short answer: neither. Neither comes first, because it’s a push-me-pull-you, back and forth. Crossing over the same ground, over and over in different directions and permutations, weaving the threads. This is all getting a bit metaphorical so here’s how a story I wrote recently happened:
I know that I want to write about X thing.
Hey, the Victorians had waste-men who collected and sold on used paper! Suppose one of them got some paper he shouldn’t have?
Start thinking about characters. I write romance so I need a pair.
The waste-man, obviously. And the guy who’s looking for the papers, who has to spend ages going through the waste-heaps with bonus sexual tension developing. Who is the other guy? Lawyer, maybe, looking for a missing will?
How does the concept lead to a plot?
The lawyer is searching for the document and…eventually finds it? Meh. What’s this about anyway? What’s at stake here?
Go back to the concept.
The waste-man has paper that’s dangerous. To him, or to other people? How’s it dangerous? If it’s a will, who knows he’s got it? If it’s state secrets, ditto.
And the characters:
The waste-man is going to blackmail the lawyer—no. Or is the other guy an agent of the state? But he could just seize it. The waste-man is going to sell—no. The waste-man is illiterate, maybe, so he doesn’t know to give it back? Um. Or is the paper in a foreign language…
It’s magic paper, you spanner. That’s what it is. It’s magic paper, and the waste-man doesn’t do magic, and it does, I don’t know, VERY BAD THING TBC, and the other guy is a magician.
Leap to the plot!
Because someone lost some papers and the magician has to find them and the papers do VERY BAD THING TBC and they have to work together to stop the thing. Which is when they fall in love.
But wait! Who are these people to be in this situation? What about them causes them to clash with each other and with the plot?
Um. The waste-man is working class, the magician is his opposite… the magician is in a panic and the waste-man has to talk him down… the waste-man is a decent guy…
Hang on, hang on. If these papers are so bad and dangerous, what was the magician doing with them?
Plot and Character answer together: He was doing bad things.
There was a lot more to be braided in from here. The magic system: it’s got to have to do with writing, because paper, and it’s got to cause the VERY BAD THING TBC, and we have to know why the magician would do bad things. Which takes us back to the characters: why would the magician do that? Is he a bad person, and if not, how was he brought into it? What about him means the waste-man works with him–or is he forced to? Which takes us back to the plot…
That is a very very short summary of how the story ‘A Queer Trade’ came together, or alternatively a very long way of saying that plot is character in action. You shuttle back and forth, from concept to character to plot, with each step leading to the next. If X, then Y. If character A is like this then he can’t behave like that, so he behaves like the other instead, and therefore character B will do this…
It can start from anywhere. I could have thought of the VERY BAD THING TBC first and worked from there; I could have imagined a stoic Victorian labourer faced with a panicking and slightly fey magician and wondered how they met. And it can go anywhere. In a different mood I could have taken the lawyer route and written a lovely missing-will story with no external threat and a character-based plot. As it happens, I was in the mood for animated corpses. I so often am.
It doesn’t matter where you start, and you don’t need to know where you’re going. What matters is that you weave plot and character together as you go. Because if you try to develop one first and then fill the other in on top, you might have a brilliant plot, or a marvellous character study, or a genius concept, but you won’t have a book.
‘A Queer Trade’ appears in the anthology Charmed and Dangerous.
My most recent release is A Fashionable Indulgence, the first book in a linked Regency trilogy. Don’t even talk to me about plotting *that* out.