Character development is a classic question of which hatched first—the character or the plot? Or—if you’re like me—then the title almost always springs to mind first, spurring the development of both. Sometimes my title ideas inspire a setting and a name or a list of names. When this happens, I have to start asking myself questions about motives and backstory to find the plot. More often, my titles carry an inherent plot line to which I need to fit characters and find an appropriate setting. However, there’s no one set way to write a picture book or novel character.
When characters hatch first, then likely the plot will grow around backstory and out of the main character’s deepest needs, desires, and fears. In this case, it’s a good idea to do character sketches or inventories. Personally, I find that these characters are more developed from the outset because I know exactly who they are and how they will react before I even present them with an obstacle. Despite this, I often prefer to carve a character out of the conflict rather than the other way around.
If plot hatches first, then the main character will be the person who grows the most through the trials and tribulations that befall them and will have the most to gain or lose at the climax of the conflict. For me, this character is more fun to develop because I get to know them slowly, like becoming good friends as the first and subsequent drafts unfold. As a fairly recent convert to plotter, this type of character development also leaves the creative space to change my story arc as the characters reveal themselves to me.
In the end, it doesn’t matter where you start as long as your character and plot intertwine unquestionably, each incomplete without the other—like sneakers without laces or a cone without ice cream. Remember, even though there’s not a set way to develop a character, a great book needs both. Regardless of whether you start with a sensational character or an innovative plot, take time to hatch and cultivate both.
Which one comes first for you?
Character comes first for me. You never know when that character is going to pop in you head. Sometimes it’s 3am and once that character takes hold there’s no letting go until their story is written.