Characters First, Plot Second?

by | Aug 19, 2020

Last Updated:
Aug 15, 2020

Think of the last book you read. What do you remember the most about it?

Chances are, if you are like a majority of readers, you’ll mention a character. In fact, most readers even mention characters when writing reviews, like …

“A fast read because the characters are interesting!” – Jo Peyton

“Beautifully written, the places and characters come alive in your mind.” – Outdoorbunch5

“Great plot and character development. Bought book two in the Trilogy!” – Teresa Moore Johnson

“I think the author deserves an honorable mention for creating two entirely relatable female protagonists.” – Mr. Hook

“I loved the characters!” – Pat

And that was just a quick smattering from books Jesper or I have written. But, if you know us, we don’t stop with a handful of generalizations. Noooo, we do the research!

Really! We researched all the top 100 bestselling fantasy books on and found that 27% of positive reviews mention characters as the reason why they liked the book (second place was the plot with 20%). 27% of the negative reviews stated poor character development as the reason why they didn’t like the book (after that came grammatical errors with 10%).

So, yes, liking the plot was just a bit behind loving the characters, but hating the characters was an overwhelming reason to dislike the ENTIRE BOOK — enough to go post a review about it. Yikes!

The book you are writing should be fast-paced and exciting. It should hold a reader’s attention and have them turning pages. But foremost, that plot should be driven by nuanced characters that readers love … or love to hate in the case of villains. 😉

How do you do that?

This dynamic is done by creating a character arc that is tied to the plot. Which means you need to have a character. And not just any character, but one that will naturally create the story you want to tell.

This might seem like a chicken and egg scenario. Which does come first? For us, it is hands down the character. Though, admittedly, you should have an idea of the sort of story you want to tell while leaving some of the plot open for character-driven inspiration.

We’ve covered character arcs here before in posts like this one and this one and even podcasts on character creation like this one and this one. Still, I’ve heard authors ask how they know when a character has changed enough to complete their arc. If the author doesn’t know that, how will the reader?

A strong character arc creating an exciting plot is the way to go. Readers will love it and, for authors, well … the writing is actually so much easier (and faster). That sounds like a win to me!

How does a character arc drive the plot?

Part of what is usually missing when creating a character arc is a deep belief. This is like the Outer Motivation, one of the four components to a simple character arc, but it is stronger than that. How strong? It is the foundational belief of a character.

Imagine if your character saw a dragon eat her parents as a child. She believes to the very core of her soul that dragons are evil and should be exterminated, certainly never trusted.

Great. How does that make an interesting story?

Well, what if the world she lives in is ruled by dragons or has a dragon god? She’d be part of the rebellious underbelly of society, an outcast from the world at large except for a select few who believe the same.

But, the next part of the equation is the interesting one; the one that creates not only a pivotal and tension-filled moment of the plot, the New Info or Dark Night of the Soul for those who’ve followed our 7 Steps of Story Structure outline previously, but is also the knife’s edge moment when the character faces the incorrectness of her deep belief.

Maybe our heroine has been doing a fairly good job ridding the world of dragon scum, ignoring the fact that with every less dragon the greedy gain more power, the poor fall into deeper oblivion, until … well, that is the key. What event would make this character realize that her foundational belief, the strongest fire that burns within her, is wrong?

Figure that out and you have a moment that breaks your character, flips the plot on its head, and makes the reader gasp.

And you can only create that by developing the character and character arc first!

We detail the steps on how to do this and sooooo much more in our recently released book Plot Development: An Outlining Method for Fiction and its associated workbook Plot Development Step by Step. Check them out and learn to drive your characters beyond the brink to a new version of themselves while pushing your plot into twisting paths and leave readers in loving awe of your story.

And don’t just believe us because we say it, see what our readers say 😉:

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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