Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What Comes First? Story or Character?

When last we spoke, I was suffering through the beginning of my third novel. Well, thank the Lord, the beginning is over and done with and now I'm just chugging along on my story as outlined. There are only a few things getting in the way of my pure storytelling enjoyment and that would be my characters.

A lot of writers just love their characters, love them to death, love them so much that they invent whole stories for them. For example, mystery writers who stay with the same character for book after book or great literary novelists like Jennifer Egan (A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD), who treats every one of her characters like an infinitely interesting Faberge egg with back story.

I am not one of those writers.

I'm what you might call story-driven. And by that I mean, I'm way more interested in the story than I am in its characters. In fact, in my writing world, the characters' only purpose in fictional life is to help me tell whatever story I've come up with -- this is why 90% of any given rewrite usually has to do with developing character, while the story itself pretty much stays the same through my five-draft rewriting process.

However, being story-driven also makes the rough draft process, how can I say this ... really effin awkward. It's basically like deciding to have great sex with someone you've never met before. It's a lot of fights and negotiations and trying to get a character's mouth toward your plot point when he or she really doesn't want to go there because she or he thinks it's boring and it's way more interested in kinkier stuff that you've never even considered before. But somehow you get through it. Still, that rough draft is just exhausting for all parties.

The first big rewrite feels like couples' counseling with you the writer, having to put in considerable effort into actually getting to know your character(s), who you had originally planned to just have hot sex with, but that was before they started demanding something more from you. The second big rewrite feels way better, though. It's like you and your character(s) are in a relationship now, really vibing and communicating. The novel takes on a different, more three-dimensional dynamic, and by the time you've tackled your copyedits, you realize that though you had only been in it for the sex, that you really love these characters, who have somehow become their own people while you were just trying to use them to tell your story.

What's funny is that I'm never sad to finish telling the story, but I'm always sad to let the characters go.

But that's my process. How about you guys? What comes first when you're writing? Story or Character? Does story come out of character for you? Or like me do you start off with the story and worry about the characters later? Let us know in the comments.

Oh, and I'm also posting the new cover for the 32 CANDLES paperback, which hits stores on June 28th. Talk about character, right! Get all the deets at


  1. Great post!
    I think I'm both story and character driven. I plan out my big reversals beforehand but they hinge on my character's arc and desire line, which I also plan out ahead of time. Like you my drafts are all about getting to know the people.

  2. Ernessa,
    You crack me up. I love this post and I never really thought about this question before, but I have an answer. In my first novel Sub Me, I totally had the story first and like you, I just need to figure out what characters I could use to tell the story. However, I have a new novel in mind, literally it's only in my head right now and it began with a character. Now I have to figure out exactly what he's going to do. I'm actually kind of scared to see what happens because he's a man, and I'm not. Duh. I'm not sure I can build a story around a male characters, so I'm thinking I'll give him a really serious and important girlfriend?

    Can't wait to read your next book and love the paperback cover.

  3. Great post, Ernessa! I can't say I'm all one or the other--just seems like a lot of starting and stopping to research until well into the second draft. But I can see I need to develop better analogies. Last time, I compared my writing journey to a cruise.

  4. I'm exactly the opposite...completely character driven. Which is great for my characters and dialogue, but kicks my butt when I can't come up with a storyline to put them in.

    And I'm a pantser, so plotting just laughs at me...every time. I've plotted this current wip 5-6, okay 9 times, and every time it changes as soon as the writing starts. I should know this by now, I should know it all comes to me later when I get closer to getting...wherever I'm getting. I get the AHA's and I go back and rethread in all the new necessities to go with that aha moment.