Let the Characters Take the Wheel

Every now and then (eerily it’s often around the time of a book launch) I’m asked a question that boils down to “What Comes First, Plot or Character?”

The answer – at least for me – is plot. Always, always, always plot. After all, without a plot, even the best characters in the world are going to end up sitting around talking about which of them left the fridge door open last night, what the colour green might taste like or whether hemlines should be up or down this year (the hem of a robe being a very serious business). That’s not to say such conversations can’t – or don’t – have value. It’s just that if they go on and on to the exclusion of all else, you get can largely the same effect from listening to a pair of drunks on a late night bus.

But here’s the thing: when I say “plot”, I mean it in the barest of bare bones kinda way. You know, a sort of “MacGuffin A is used by Protagonist B to defeat Antagonist C” structure. Often with the addendum of “using method D and after enduring plot twist E”.

Where does that plot come from? For me – and let’s be honest, for all of us – it’s an amalgam of other stories we’ve consumed over the years. That film I loved, the book I hated but wanted to love, and so on. Something I want to imitate or improve. Something that’s fun. Something that we hope might speak to other people. Doesn’t matter, really, because it’s not going to look anything like the source of inspiration once it’s done.

Because after I’ve taken that simple step of settling on a plot, it’s character all the way.

It starts with the protagonist or the antagonist, and what makes them someone I care about. And I absolutely have to care about them, otherwise what hope is there for the reader? What is the thing that makes that character cool? That makes them someone you can admire, openly or otherwise?

Their goals can be part of that, but it’s never so much about what it is they want as what they’ll do to get it… or more precisely what they won’t do. That line between yes and no is where heroes, villains and everything in between truly come alive, because it forces choices and consequences. Stories have to be larger than life, so any fork in the road has to matter – has to have a price, even if that price is no more complicated than the character’s moral hinterland being left in tatters.

Once I’ve got either the antagonist or the protagonist sorted, I can turn my attention to the other, starting with why they’re in opposition. This can be the obvious route – a Dark Lord™ versus a Chosen One™ – but I personally prefer things to be a bit more flexible. A Dark Lord™ versus a Chosen One™ can really only close out one of two ways, depending on whether you’re going for the feelgood or downer endings, but Dark Lord™ versus Ordinary Guy (or Gal) on a Bad Day™ can end up just about anywhere.

This is where the lines between yes and no really start to kick in, because at the heart of it all, either my protagonist, my antagonist – or both – are prepared (or driven) to do something that the other won’t. It doesn’t even have to be an objectively large difference – it just has to be significant to the characters.

Characters - Legacy of Light by Matthew Ward(While there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the Legacy Trilogy – and plenty of antagonists and protagonists lurking in the wings – the story turns on the conflicts and concords between Josiri Trelan and Viktor Akadra. Though not a typical adversarial relationship, the two are at loggerheads so often simply because Viktor is prepared to do things the Josiri won’t, and vice versa. The sparks fly when they come into conflict because they’re imperfect reflections, rather than complete opposites. The same is true of the other antagonistic pairings, from outright hero/villain matchups to squabbling family.)

Once I’ve got my antagonist and protagonist sorted, it’s time to look at the friends, enemies and lovers who make them who they are. And then the friends, enemies and lovers who make them who they are. This could mean a detailed, blow-by-blow account of personality and history, a handful of character traits or a sneaky “a bit like Character X from Story Y”. But always, always, always at the heart of it are the two core questions: what do they want, and what lines won’t they cross?

That done, all that remains is to set the protagonist off on his or her journey and throw these other characters onto the path. I don’t even mind that much about the who, what and when (although I will occasionally bash two of my literary action figures together just because it’ll make for a nice noise). I already know these people and how they’ll react to each other… and more importantly, to each other’s goals.

This is where the magic happens – where the single vector of MacGuffin A, Protagonist B, Antagonist C is raised to the Nth and becomes a fractal landscape bursting with possibility. Every character weasels their way into being the protagonist of their own little corner of the story, and someone else’s antagonist to boot. Sometimes they’re aware of it, and fight like lions to stay there. Sometimes they’re just passing through while the real conflict gathers pace. Sometimes they know exactly what they’re doing, and sometimes it’s just for kicks.

It doesn’t matter, because it’s a hell of a ride. And, of course, all the characters are changing all the time, forging new friendships, making new enemies, failing upwards or tumbling downwards. That’s where the story comes from, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Plot is what happens. It’s a Wikipedia entry.