July 2 – 8: “Which comes first, plot or character?”

With just one more Roundtable discussion before ThrillerFest VII, we try to answer the question: “Which comes first, plot or character?” Join ITW Members Joseph Amiel, Charles Martin, Michael D. Urban, Allison Leotta, Jon Land, Meg Gardiner and John Hartness.

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Allison Leotta served as a federal sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington, DC for twelve years. Her most recent novel, DISCRETION, comes out July 3rd. #1 best-selling author Douglas Preston said, “DISCRETION is the best legal thriller I’ve read this year, beautifully crafted and frighteningly real.” The Washington Post called her debut novel, LAW OF ATTRACTION, “a racy legal thriller, taking on a still-taboo subject.” A free e-short story, TEN RULES FOR A CALL GIRL, is available for e-readers. The ABA has named Allison’s blog, The Prime Time Crime Review, one of the best legal blogs in America. Allison is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Michigan State University.

New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper writes contemporary suspense for Mira Books–not with real people. But she also writes historical novels, most recently MISTRESS OF MOURNING, a Tudor-era murder mystery, for Penguin USA and Random House UK. Each of her historicals centers on a real woman from English history. Harper won the Mary Higgins Clark Award in 2006. A former university and high school English teacher, she has been published since 1982 with over 50 novels, many of which have been translated into foreign editions.

Meg Gardiner writes the Evan Delaney and the Jo Beckett novels, best-selling series that have been translated into twenty languages. CHINA LAKE won the 2009 Edgar for Best Paperback Original. Gardiner practiced law in Los Angeles and taught at the University of California Santa Barbara. She lives near London. Her latest novel is RANSOM RIVER.

Charles Philipp Martin, who grew up in New York City, is the author of the Hong Kong suspense novel NEON PANIC. After spending a few years playing bass in the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, he switched to writing, spending years as a newspaper columnist, feature writer and radio presenter. He now lives in Seattle with his wife and son. His jazz radio show, 3 O’Clock Jump, can be heard every Saturday on Hong Kong’s Radio 3. Martin is at work on the second Inspector Lok novel.

Jon Land is the bestselling author of thirty thrillers, most recently the Caitlin Strong series that includes STRONG ENOUGH TO DIE, STRONG JUSTICE, and STRONG AT THE BREAK. The next entry, STRONG VENGEANCE, will actually be debuting at ThrillerFest. He’s also bringing back his longtime action hero Blaine McCracken in PANDORA’S TEMPLE for Open Road Media this coming November and this past year published his first ever nonfiction book, BETRAYAL.

Mike Urban was born outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  A Dartmouth College graduate, he now lives in New England with his wife, daughter and Portuguese Water Dog (who happens to have the same grandfather as Bo Obama). DRAKE’S COFFIN is the beginning of a planned series of several adventures featuring his DRAKE’S COFFIN hero, Zach Colt. DRAKE’S COFFIN was named a Finalist in Action/Adventure by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. It is also nominated for Best Thriller and Best eBook Cover by the Global eBook Awards. For over a decade Mike lived and traveled throughout Central America.  He worked in federal law enforcement both in the States and overseas. Most recently, he was a trial lawyer in private practice.  As a boy, he did dive in search of Sir Francis Drake’s lead coffin, which has been resting for over 400 years somewhere on the ocean floor near the entrance to Portobelo Harbor, Panama.  He has not found it — yet.

Joseph Amiel is an internationally best-selling author, whose novels include STAR TIME, BIRTHRIGHT, DEEDS, HAWKS and A QUESTION OF PROOF. He has also won awards for screenwriting and for his comedy-mystery web series Ain’t That Life. A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School, he is married and lives in New York City.

31 Comments
  1. What sparks the creative urge in novelists is as individual as our books. I’ve heard and read writers who said they couldn’t get a character out of their heads and began writing about them and plot followed. Others will tell you they have a great idea for a book, which usually means “plot.” In my own case it’s often a combination of a character I’m interested in who is caught in a situation that leads to suspenseful plot.

    In my first novel, Hawks, which was pre-9/11, I had an idea about why someone would cause a commercial jetliner to crash. The story rose up around that central idea and became a novel about the airline industry and top executives in crisis at an airline. A new digital version of that book will launch by the end of the year.

    In my forthcoming legal thriller, A Question of Proof, the protagonist, a lawyer , was so much like me – same background, profession, concerns, values – that character was in many ways a given and constructing an engrossing plot was uppermost in my thinking. The plot about his lover charged with murdering her husband had to twist and turn and the stakes had to be the psychic equivalent of life and death before I could even think the character could become the basis of a novel.

    But what I find most intriguing is when an opening line pops into my head and that starts me thinking in directions, both of character and of plot, I might never have considered before. Who said it? What was happening? What could result?

    But that obsessive creativity is why we write. For that and for money, of course.

  2. Chicken or egg?

    Over the years I’ve gotten two solid pieces of advice for writing suspense:

    1. Create sympathetic characters and put them in jeopardy.

    Before I even sat down to write my first book, I heard this from mystery novelist Leonard Tourney. It guided the first several manuscripts I wrote. Character, character, character—that drove everything I put on the page.

    2. Great characters will gain you loyal fans. But a big story will bring a big readership.

    This came from Sue Fletcher, my editor at Hodder & Stoughton in London. It’s the story, stupid.

    Of course it’s both. They’re intertwined. But with each book I write, I focus more intensely on the story. Plot drives everything.

    As for what drives plot…

  3. The more I get into plot and character, the less I can distinguish between them. For me, plot is character. Apart from coincidences and the like, the progress of the plot depends on the actions of characters, and these actions need to be consistent with the characters. Whenever I have a character do something, I ask myself, “Does this action flow from the character’s innate qualities?” If it could just as easily have been done by someone else, I don’t consider it a good move. If I change or add to a character, it inevitably changes the plot.

    Note that there are two interpretations of “first” (as in “which comes first?). Chronologically, I tend to think of a plot situation first. But that’s only a starting point for me.

  4. I’ve actually thought about this a lot over the years, but this is the first time somebody pinned me down for an actual response! At the risk of copping out a bit, it’s really impossible for me to separate plot from character, and here’s why. First off, my female Texas Ranger, Caitlin Strong, is a recurring series action hero and I begin each book with a running start: not only what terrible plot she’s trying to thwart, but also what personal emotion struggle she’s fighting to resolve. In STRONG VENGEANCE, for example, she’s up against homegrown Islamic terrorists even as she’s struggling with her feelings as surrogate mother for the teenage boys of her outlaw lover, Cort Wesley Masters, who’s in prison when the book opens. My point, you see, is that you can’t really separate plot from character because for me anyway they are inextricably linked. I don’t outline; I know where I’m going but not necessarily how I’m going to get there. I let my characters make a lot of the decisions for me and they’re development is based to a great extent on how they respond to a terrible threat they must thwart even as they fight to slay their own personal demons. The emotional core of the story, then, must be just as powerful and well developed as the structural core. In the Caitlin Strong series, there is a great deal of emotional development and change from book to book, as her relationships and psyche evolve. The challenges she encounters in the story as a Texas Ranger mirror, or parallel, the challenges she faces in her personal life, because I’ve strived to develop her character based as much on her flaws as her strengths, and the storyline builds on both of those. Case in point: STRONG VENGEANCE contains what I think is the most chilling scene I’ve ever written when a particularly heinous villain pays a visit to one of the boys for whom Caitlin is responsible. He does what he does purely to get a rise out of her, to provoke Caitlin into doing exactly what she ends up doing, even though she knows she’s being baited. It’s her nature as a character, but it’s the plot that reveals this nature to the reader.

  5. It’s interesting that we’ve set up this dichotomy of plot vs. character. We don’t talk about plot vs. setting, or character vs. tone — it’s always plot vs. character, as if they are permanently opposed to one another.

    One reason for the separation is we often feel (or are told) that elucidating character takes time away from the plot. But to me, the best plot devices are ones that reveal the character as they move along the plot.

  6. I had the same question asked in my freshman year English seminar at Dartmouth. I still have the same answer, but in a much shortened form (BTW, got an A on my essay). In the very best fiction, including thrillers, these two elements have near-equal weight. Readers want a character they like and who interests them so they will be drawn into the book and become emotionally invested in the outcome. Readers need a compelling plot to retain interest, and obviously, be sufficiently entertained. Ignoring either plot or character or overemphasizing one over the other produces an unbalanced and ultimately flawed work. Having said all this, I believe there is a tendency in many thrillers to be almost purely plot-driven at the expense of good character development and this renders them ultimately little more than an elaborate series of staged events.

  7. First Electricity, Then Character, Finally Plot

    My house was hit by the crazy east-coast electric storms a couple days ago, and we’ve been without power ever since. Which has meant that, in addition to losing all the contents of my fridge, I wasn’t able to log onto my computer and post my Thriller Roundtable entry last night, as planned. To further complicate things, my kids’ daycare is also out of power and is closed today. So, here I am in Caribou Coffee, desperately trying to amuse my kids with coffee stirrers and sugar packets while simultaneously posting my piece with the one wi-fi connection in town.

    So, I would have to say, before anything else, a writer needs *electricity*.

    Of course, Edgar Allen Poe would disagree. But Ed was never invited to participate in Thriller Roundtable.

    Okay, assuming you have electricity, I think the next thing you need are great characters. You can have a fabulous plot, twists and turns and nuclear bombs, and no one will give a damn if they don’t care what happens to your hero. You need characters people love. Heroes – someone who will right the wrongs, who won’t let us down, men and women with a deep commitment to justice. Villains worthy of their attention, who could really muck up the world if they got away with their evil plan. But these folks can’t be one-dimensional. What we love are complicated characters. Flawed heroes. Appealing victims.

    Look at Sherlock Holmes, who has amazing powers of detection, but is also a drug addict and suffers from an intense distrust of women. We love his skills, and we hope he will overcome his flaws.

    That said, a great thriller still needs a strong plot. Readers pick up these books for thrills and shocks and that chill down the spine, and you have to deliver. There are two school of thoughts on how to do so. Organic writers just create strong characters, put them in tough situations, and see how they react. It’s an artistic, almost-magical process.

    I can’t work that way. I’m of the other school, the plotters. I come up with a long outline, detailing everything that’s going to happen, before I write. Especially since I write legal thriller / mysteries based on my 12 years of being a sex-crimes prosecutor in D.C.

    I believe that writing a mystery is like playing a game of chess. You have to plan out each reveal, each plot twist carefully, understanding that each move you make now will affect every move down the road.

    Okay, my kids just spilled Sugar In The Raw on the lovely leather shoes of a businessman. How’s that for a plot twist?

  8. To Meg’s point, and to jump off something Allison said above, plot does indeed drive everything. And characters become creatures of those plots. How they respond to the crisis when there is so much at stake–the very nature of the thriller–defines them and their quest. Because that’s something I left out of my comments above. Thrillers, to a great extent, are above all quest stories. In the course of the journey to fulfill that quest and save the world, country, stop the bad guys, find the long-lost document secret, or whatever, the hero will evolve and grow. In my mind, doing a book where the characters are the very same people they were when the story started is like a literary flat line. But the journey, the quest formed by the plot, will inevitably change them and how they perceive and interact with the world. And that’s the very definition of the linkage between plot and character.

  9. Thanks, Joseph. Though I hope saying STORY MATTERS wouldn’t get me defenestrated at a writers’ workshop. At least until they put comfy mattresses below the window.

    Plot vs. character is surely a false dichotomy. Plot consists of the choices characters make under ever increasing pressure. In turn, those choices reveal, define, and build character. The two can’t be separated.

    But character by itself isn’t enough. That took me a long time to learn — that feisty, snarky, funny characters couldn’t pull off a book just by being feisty, snarky, and funny. If that’s all they were, I might as well have written a blog post. To make a book work, it needs to put those characters into a big, bold, compelling story.

  10. For me, character drives everything. In a book I’m selecting to read, and especially when I’m writing, I have to have characters that I care about.

    When I first had the idea for The Black Knight Chronicles, my urban fantasy detective series, I was reading another urban fantasy series that veered off into a set of books about how many people could sleep together instead of books about catching the bad guys. So the question that popped into my head was “What if there were homely, goofy vampires, that couldn’t pick up girls with the bat of an eye? Wouldn’t they be better detectives?”

    Once the characters of Jimmy Black and Greg Knightwood were lodged in my head, they wouldn’t shut up until I started writing them. It was not just a creative matter to get their stories down on paper, I had to do it to save my marriage. My wife was VERY tired of me talking to these characters all the time. 🙂

    But once we’ve built characters, then we have to torment them. And that, to me, is where the plot comes in. For my writing (and obviously YMMV) it’s all about what kind of ride can we take the character, and subsequently the reader, on. Is it a terribly thrill ride through a haunted tunnel? Is it a rushing roller coaster? Or is it a lazy river with swans and moonbeams?

    Of course, it’s NEVER a lazy river with swans and moonbeams. Unless the swans are suddenly carnivorous, like piranha swans. I’ll check back in later, I gotta go write a piranha swan short story…

  11. Very much the same thing, indeed. Here’s my approach: I don’t do outlines. I have my main character. I know his personality , his worldview , in a broad sense the theme and even how the story will end. I let the character grow organically as the story develops. The plot, too, simply unfolds as I write, since I typically get into the “zone” and let my imagination flow. Maybe I’d like to be more formal about the whole thing, maybe not. Like the rest of you, there is no precise separation of character and plot.

  12. Michael,

    Sometimes I wish I could be more organic like that, but I can’t manage to get through an entire book-length work that way. I can pants my short stories, and to a lesser degree my novellas, but with a novel I get into the saggy middle if I don’t outline. How do you avoid that?

    And on a slightly different note, what about subplots? I know I like to have one or two in a novel, and then one or two that carry from book to book in a series, but what do y’all like? I write urban fantasy, which is totally series-based, but what about those of you that write more traditional thrillers, which can be more one-shot?

  13. So, Mike — You don’t have to outline? It just flows?

    Hands up: Who hates Mike?

    Sorry, kidding. I’m amazed and pleased for you. I have to outline, because otherwise writing becomes like fighting my way out of a knotted burlap bag. In the dark, with my hands tied.

    I have learned that unless I outline, the plot skims along the surface and never reaches the depths that would make it a truly good story. (Okay, the plot flails and then sinks. But you get the idea.) I have to sit back and think, sometimes for weeks or months, about what turn of events would really test my characters. How can I ratchet up the conflict and present my hero or heroine with a challenge that will define them?

    And in a thriller, I think this has to be a big, obvious, physical and moral challenge. The Quest, as Jon mentioned. That’s why I keep saying: Story is everything.

    And Allison — you’re keeping us in suspense. What happened with the Sugar in the Raw incident? It sounds like a real test of character.

  14. Meg – sorry you are miffed (I know that it is all in good fun). But seriously, as a student, as a lawyer, and now as a writer, I do not outline. It sounds stupid, but I carry everything in my head. The only thing I do approaching an outline is make a list of characters and notes of how they connect. Perhaps my approach is dictated by the fact that as I write I research and research leads me to an unexpected fact that provides a starting point for a new line of plot development or creation of a fresh character. Sorry to stray too far from the core question, but perhaps this explains for me why I regard character and plot as so entertwined that I am unable to disect the writing process and rationally proffer an explanation as to which is more important.

  15. I mentioned this roundtable on Facebook, and a reader commented: “If it’s a series it’ll always be character, plot, more characters, in that order.”

    He’s right.

    I’ve been slinging a sledgehammer for story here, but I write two series that are heavily character-based. The Evan Delaney series features five novels so far. But before any were published I scribbled at least three half-baked books featuring Evan. She was all I had: a smart-mouthed journalist from Santa Barbara. I kept throwing her into stories until I wrote one that worked, CHINA LAKE. And I sold the Jo Beckett series to my editor with one line: It’s about a forensic psychiatrist who performs psychological autopsies for the cops — she’s a deadshrinker.

    The key is to come up with gripping stories that test these characters to the limit every time.

    And here’s the flip side. My newest novel is a stand alone, RANSOM RIVER. This book, I sold on the plot: A juror on a murder trial finds herself fighting for her life when gunmen attack the courthouse. Then she discovers that the attack is connected to an old unsolved case, and bringing the truth to light might destroy her. (Of course it might. It’s a thriller.)

    And my editor said: This juror has to be really compelling, because everything depends on her.

    Character development became my crucial work. It took months, until a full-blown heroine could carry the book — Rory Mackenzie.

    If readers are going to accompany your characters on their quest, those characters had better be worthy.

  16. I’m with Mike when it comes to process: fly by the seat of mine, and my characters’, pants instead of laying everything out in advance. Reading all these comments reminds me of the great Jerry Garcia quote, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” What we seem to be saying with regards to plot and/vs. character is very similar–our destinations being pretty much the same. But our journeys, the road that gets us there, are all different. For me, outlining robs the story of spontaneity, of having the confidence to let your characters figure out what’s going on for you. If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, then the reader can’t possibly. That said, every chapter will end with a hook and end with some kind of cliffhanger and all my chapters will be short, 4-6 typed pages on average. So, sure, I have a formula so to speak. But I never let that formula get in the way of where my characters want to take me. Hell, arguably the favorite of many in my most recent Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger series, the giant assassin Guillermo Paz, wasn’t even supposed to survive the first entry, STRONG ENOUGH TO DIE–he started out as little more than a rip-off of Anton Chigurh from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. But Paz had other ideas and now he’s a series staple. That’s the fun part of the process–when a character starts dictating the action for you which, in turn, helps expand and develop the plot.

  17. Hello all.

    Right on, Jon! Glad to see I am not crazy!

    Took yesterday off to watch the U.S.S. Constitution turnaround in Boston harbor and visit the Adams Farm in Quincy. Talk about character and plot: John Adams, a hardscrabble farmer turned lawyer, vilified for defending the the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre; Thomas Jefferson, landed aristocrat and bon vivant, principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence; a small, fledgling agrarian collection of disparate colonies taking on and defeating the greatest power on earth; two men who join together, risk certain death to help create a new republic, shape it, lead it, later become enemies, reconcile in old age, and both die on July 4, 1826.. Couldn’t make it up. But I digress. . ..

    Which leads me to consider that our debate is much like what historians argue when they contemplate the Great Man Theory theory of history, i.e. is it great personalities that shape history or do events drive it. Not sure the historians have figured this out, either.

    I do have one major point of agreement with my comrades. When it comes to creating a series, a great character is required. I can’t think of a single series, be it thriller, suspense, detective, etc., that does not have a compelling main character. And that character is what draws us back, book after book, regardless of the underlying story.

    Hope you all had a great 4th!

  18. You guys who fly so successfully by the seat of your pants — I bet you have an inner storytelling compass that’s well-calibrated. Even when it feels like you’re making it up on the spot, it’s my guess that instinct (aka creativity honed by craft) is leading you to good landings at the right spot.

    Me, I’d like to see a bonfire at the airstrip, and an army of those guys who wave the sticks, telling me where to put it down.

  19. Meg, I’m kinda hating on Mike and Jon right now. I envy that kind of freedom. I’m too much a type-A to just let my characters grow organically. I have to keep deliberately moving them around the chessboard that is my murder mystery. I’ll know I’ve really grown as a writer when I can burn the outline. For now, it is next to my computer every day.

    John, how’s that pirhana swan short story coming along? I want to read that.

    Meg, the man with the sugary shoes was very kind, said he had grandkids of his own. We still bought him a new iced coffee.

  20. There’s so much pressure when you honestly don’t know from day to day where you’re going exactly that it forces you to be on all the time. And it also forces you to, once you’ve found your rhythm and gotten it a roll, to go with it and not stop. That’s how I’m able to churn out 75-100 pages a week and finish a first draft inside of two months. For me, that’s the key–getting it down so I know the story. Then the polishing begins because, let’s face it, when you fly by the seat of your pants chances are you’re gonna crash a few times, maybe get rerouted a few others. I always tell people I’m a much better re-writer than writer thanks in large part by the fact that I’m blessed with a brilliant editor, Natalia Aponte, who I’ve been with at Forge for 20+ years now. Natalia continues to push me to be better from a book to book, challenging me with what makes us care about Caitlin Strong and Cort Wesley Masters this time out. Recently she taught me one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned, saying that when writing a scene, always know where the light is coming from. And ever since then, man, have my descriptions taken on a new resonance and impact. I like to tell people I started my career trying to be Robert Ludlum and now I’m trying to be James Lee Burke! lol

  21. I am still with Jon. If I had an outline, I’d feel pressured to adhere to it, which would make me nervous and unhappy. I’d also feel robbed of spontaneity and creativity. It is the ability to sit down every day and not know what is going to pop out that creates the thrill in writing. Keeping all the balls in the air without exactly knowing how things will play out is also exciting. And once in the zone, cranking it out is that much easier. Like Jon, I can do a first draft in about 3 months. Editing is the killer – not so much rewriting but proofing, copy-editing, etc., the boring meat and potatoes.

  22. “When writing a scene, always know where the light is coming from.”

    Jon, that quote from Natalia Aponte is going up on my wall, next to “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

    As for the nitty gritty of our writing methods, this discussion is demonstrating that there is no one true path. I outline in broad strokes. That provides the bones of my plot, and its structure. But when I sit down to write a scene, I generally write with an open mind about how to put meat on the bones, and bring it to life. An outline never feels constraining to me. It’s architecture, it’s support, it’s a design that holds together. But the actual writing still feels creative. That’s what animates every chapter, gives it heart and depth and vividness.

  23. It’s worth noting that you can outline without writing it down – if you carry the whole story in your head, you’re still outlining – it’s a matter of how good your memory is. Mozart wrote whole compositions in his head while playing billiards. For my money, writing is storytelling, and the story is the story, whether it’s narrated, written or filmed – words are the medium, not the structure. So what people call outlining I call making up a story. Of course things change as I write, and that doesn’t bother me – in fact, I love when the prose takes me in a different direction. And in terms of our topic, when I got down to the final writing of Neon Panic I discovered new things about my character, Inspector Lok, that set me to restructure the plot. For me the story and the outline grow and change together, like flesh and bone.

    By the way, is anyone else having trouble with the advanced mathematics they require us to do to fill in these comments?

  24. I keep forgetting to do the math Captcha, until the page barks at me. And speaking of math…

    Einstein proved that energy and matter are two sides of the same coin. Mass can be transformed into energy. E = MC squared.

    Likewise, plot and character are two sides of the same coin. They’re bound together. And when characters collide, combine, conflict… boom, energy is generated. The result: story.

    And that’ll wrap it up for me here on the roundtable. Thanks for the discussion, guys. It’s been fun and enlightening.

  25. Hey, Meg, we’ve got a mutual admiration society going because I’m going to put your “Grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow” quote over my desk!

    You know, all of this for me comes down to the answer the great John D. McDonald gave when asked, simply, what’s a story: “Story is stuff happening to people you care about.” I always come back to that when speaking to writing classes or when looking at my own work. Stuff has to happen, but if it happens to characters we haven’t developed well enough to build empathy/sympathy for, the story won’t work. It’s all about finding the blend between the emotional core of the tale with the structural core.

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