October 28 – November 3: “Which comes first, the character or the plot?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week join ITW Members Sandy DeLuca, Brian Poole, John Lutz, Nina Croft, Michael Russell, Anne HillermanSharon Menear and Don Helin as they discuss which comes first, the character or the plot?


NinaCroft_TheDescartesLegacy3Nina Croft grew up in the north of England. After training as an accountant, she spent four years working as a volunteer in Zambia which left her with a love of the sun and a dislike of 9-5 work. She then spent a number of years mixing travel (whenever possible) with work (whenever necessary) but has now settled down to a life of writing and picking almonds on a remote farm in the mountains of southern Spain.

hells_doorAt present Sandy DeLuca is a full time writer and painter. She’s written and published numerous novels, two poetry collections and several novellas, including the critically acclaimed MESSAGES FROM THE DEAD and DESCENT. She was a finalist for the BRAM STOKER for poetry award in 2001. She lives with three faithful felines in an old Cape Cod House in Rhode Island.

grievousBrian C. Poole is an author, attorney and all-around pop culture junkie. A Boston area native and graduate of Boston College and Suffolk Law School, Brian’s published novels include Grievous Angels and Echoes of a Distant Thunder. You may also have read some prospectuses that Brian wrote, but for your sake, he hopes not.

TwistCoverJohn Lutz is the author of more than forty-five novels and 200 short stories. His awards include the Edgar, Shamus, and Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Award. His work has been published in most languages and adapted for almost every medium. He is past president of both Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America. His latest book is the thriller TWIST.

The City of Strangers(From Michael Russell) I have written most of my life, mostly UK TV drama. All that started as a way to earn a living. I have finally got round to what I was earning it for: time to write novels. The Stefan Gillespie series (THE CITY OF SHADOWS, THE CITY OF STRANGERS) is set in Ireland in the 30s and 40s and in cities playing a major part in WWII: Danzig, New York, Lisbon, Berlin, London, Rome. War and the rumour of war; Ireland’s dark past and present; being neutral when there’s no neutrality; ordinary people dragged reluctantly into the darkness; hopefully a good yarn; the Wicklow Mountains (where I live with my family); and a detective who can if needed, when not investigating crimes his superiors would rather he didn’t, milk a cow and shear a sheep!

Spider Woman's DaughterAnne Hillerman is an award-winning reporter, the author of several non-fiction books, and the daughter of New York Times bestselling author Tony Hillerman. She lives in Santa Fe, and Spider Woman’s Daughter is her first novel.


During Don Helin‘s time in the military, he spent seven years in the Pentagon. These assignments have provided him background for his thrillers. His first novel, “Thy Kingdom Come,” was published in 2009. His second, “Devil’s Den,” has been selected as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards. Don lives in central Pennsylvania where he is working on “Secret Assault,” to be published in Spring 2014.

Deadstick Dawn-jpeg finalS.L. Menear traveled the world as a Pan Am flight attendant before switching careers and becoming a major airline pilot who flew B727s, B737s, DC-9s, and BAC 1-11 jet airliners. She also flew many antique and experimental aircraft, enjoyed aerobatic flying, scuba diving, skiing, motorcycling, surfing, sailing, horseback riding, and powered paragliding.



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  1. For a very long time literary criticism has concentrated on ‘character’ as the essence of what writing is about, certainly in literary fiction, a genre that has probably done itself no favours by separating itself from fiction in general. There may be something to be said for G.K. Chesterton’s adage: ‘Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity’. The idea of the ‘story’ is often literature’s ‘poor relation’, but storytelling has been important in all ages, in every society we know of, including pre-literate societies. You could say storytelling, whatever the mix of history, memory, fantasy, mythology, adventure, religious belief, ordinary lives and loves, is part of what it is to be human. So, nailing my colours to the mast, at some level I do believe the ‘story’ is the base line of what we do.

    Of course in the hands of great writers, character and story become almost inseparable, but for the rest of us they are elements we balance with the other elements of writing. I think those elements, with all the flaws of arbitrary division, are: 1) story, 2) character, 3) the world the writer creates (important because the reader has to want to stay in it!), and 4) prose (the simple business of putting one word after another). These things are balanced differently by different novelists and again in the hands of great writers they coalesce almost magically; we can’t see the joins. But ‘character’, in particular the idea of ‘character development’, ‘character arc’, which we may spend much time discussing in seminars on novel and screenplay writing, is by no means always the dominant, fundamental element, given a basic ability to create competently drawn characters.

    Even in a great work of literary fiction like James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ there are whole areas no one could claim have anything to do with character (unless it’s the author’s character!). If we look at two great detectives, Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe, they are enduringly fascinating and engaging, but there is no real sense in which they ‘develop’. Raymond Chandler’s glorious prose takes Marlowe down a lot of mean streets, but he reaches the end of them without ever aspiring to ‘developmental arcs’. Often the great detectives and investigators we love, with all their characterful flaws, are pretty much the same at the end of a series of books as at the beginning. What matters, what drives the genre we love (call it crime fiction for want of anything better) are the stories. Given that characters are engaging, story is all. It’s something we should delight in; one of the things that makes the crime-writing genre so distinctive and so resiliently popular.
    Naturally there are crime writers who focus on character exploration more than others; there are those who experiment with the boundaries of the genre. That’s good. The only rule is that there are no rules! But for most of us I think story does come first. We are the inheritors of that ‘necessity for fiction’ Chesterton referred to as a real human need.

    What we write may emerge out of the ether as an ebook now but there is a bond to storytellers who sat round tribal fires, as they still do in places like the Kalahari desert, where I once watched a taleteller, in the empty darkness of an African night, hold an audience of San men, women and children spellbound, as his ancestors had done for thousands of years. J.R.R. Tolkien said all stories are a version of, ‘A man walked out of his house one day and this is what happened…’ Only in our world he stumbles on a body at some point. (We will take it as read that when Tolkien spoke he meant to say ‘a man or a woman’!)

    However crucial the character or characters the story ‘happens to’ are, and the characters ‘happened upon’ in the course of the tale too, it is the narrative that takes hold of us and drives the thing forward. Ours is a genre in which there are always stories, real, page-turning, tangible stories doing that driving, and it is irresistible for us and our readers. It’s in the DNA of what crime-fiction writing is. Those stories don’t have to be hardboiled or blood-curdling or limb-ripping (well, of course at times!), but there is a pace you get, when the stories drive the characters and the characters drive the stories, back and forth, like grand slam tennis, unlike anything else, however good, for sheer energy, whether the writer is Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, John Buchan, Chester Himes, John Connolly, Lee Child. The list is, wonderfully, endless.

    And with luck and a reasonable story, the rest of us can at least tuck in behind them!

    In the course of a story we may find out all sorts of things about the characters, but what we’re always saying first is not ‘See who these people really are!’, it is ‘So what happened next?’ Characters have to have ‘character’, but perhaps it’s true to say that in crime fiction, if you find your story, well, you may just find your characters more easily. Or will you?

  2. First, I want to thank ITW for inviting me to participate in this week’s Thriller Round Table.
    The debate on wich comes first, character or plot goes on and on – – –
    I’ve spent hours and hours studying pacing and the various techniques to move the story along so as to fully engage the reader.
    However, I still believe that vibrant and realistic charaacters are the more important element in quality story telling. If the reader doesn’t enjoy and feel a kinship with the characters in the story, he or she is likely to put the book down.
    Now the million dollar question is how to do that well. I look forward to this week’s discusison and sharing of ideas.

  3. Thank you for the invitation to partcipate in this week’s discussion. I’d like to share my own experience regarding the current discussion.

    I’m also a painter, so my way of constructing fiction might seem a bit quirky to others. Character comes first most of the time. I spend a lot of time observing people, keeping notebooks filled with their mannerisms, facial expressions and the stories they tell—from a young girl, dressed in a simple black dress, walking down Broadway in New York City, on to people who I notice at sporting events, in restaurants and on television. The girl in the black dress began with a few sketches, and she became a character in one of my short stories. A majority of my work has developed in the same way.

    I look forward to reading and sharing ideas regarding character and plot with other writers.

  4. Thanks for inviting me to add my two cents’ worth here.
    For me, characters came first.
    Then, I figured out what to do with them–the plot.
    That, in turn, led me to develop additional characters who led me to more stories.
    Unlike most mystery writers I “inherited” a wonderful cast, characters created by my father Tony Hillerman in his 30 years of writing mysteries. I grew up hearing Tony Hillerman discuss Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Those guys seemed like my uncles. After 19 books, readers loved these core characters and their stories enough to put Dad’s books consistently on the best seller lists. I viewed Chee and Leaphorn as fictional family members, having heard Dad discuss their escapades as he worked out his latest plot or thought his way through a writing challenge.
    Bernadette Manuelito, better known as Bernie, was less developed. She gradually became a stronger character as the series progressed, moving from a rookie cop with a crush on Jim Chee to a law enforcement officer who served with the Border Patrol before coming back to Navajo land.
    When I decided to write Spider Woman’s Daughter it was with the idea of giving Bernie a book in which she would finally get to solve the crime. As I said earlier, in this book character came first.
    I knew when I decided to take on the Leaphorn/Chee series that I needed to give it my own flavor. As my plot developed and the need for subplots arose, the un-tapped facets of Bernie’s character provided inspiration and opportunity. I decided top make her life more complicated by giving her an aged mother who needs attention and a younger sister who’s a handful. These new characters in turn fueled subplots.
    When it came to the central plot, using Bernie as a main character– with the idea that she would solve the crime– propelled the story.
    This sounds a lot more analytical and organized that it felt at the time.
    I’d sit down to write and on good days useful ideas came to me, characters spoke, objected, said and did unexpected things, some of which worked with the plot and some of which didn’t. I knew where I was going, however because even before I got to know Bernie very well I’d figured out how the book would start and how it would end, the two crucial points in plotting. The journey in between worked itself out because of the strength of the characters my father had built word-by-word over three decades. And because of the power of Bernadette Manuelito herself. Freed from the job of being a “supporting” character and placed in the spotlight, Bernie sparkled.
    As Michael Russell said in his post, stories drive the characters and characters drive the story. Hang on and enjoy the ride!

  5. Thanks for inviting me to take part, I’m pleased to be participating in my first roundtable, especially with such a great question.

    Between the two books I’ve published and others that haven’t yet made their way out to the world, I’ve actually worked both ways. My two published novels both started with the plot idea: the “victim soul” concept (Angels) and the concept of what might have happened to the soul of a woman killed during the Salem witch trials (Echoes). Each was a sort of plot “thesis statement” that suggested characters that helped me develop the idea. One of my unreleased novels, my first attempt at novel-length fiction, also started with an idea, a desire to write an old-fashioned, soap opera-ish murder mystery with all kinds of secrets that come to light in the course of unraveling the murder; a cast of dysfunctional characters served that idea and in some cases were dictated by story needs, probably more so than anything else I’ve written.

    On the other hand, an unreleased book of mine absolutely started with the characters. I’d started sketching character ideas in a shared fictional world, more as a writing exercise than anything else, with no definitive purpose in mind. I actually spent months creating bios for a large group of characters and only then realized that, without consciously meaning to, I’d sketched the broad outlines of a plot via fleshing out backstories for several characters. That plot outline helped me zero in on the characters that made the most sense to carry the story but it all started with the characters themselves and my attempts to figure out who they were and what events had shaped their lives.

    I’ve just started work on another book where I seem to be using both approaches at once. I started by dreaming up a character that could be the lead in a series, where I’d posed to myself what a really cool job might be and what the person who did it might be like (cool to me, that is, others may disagree vehemently about the coolness of my character’s job when this book makes it out). While I was working on that character, I happened to read an article that sparked a plot idea I realized would work ideally for him and the two fed each other from there. The quirks of the character I’d created helped suggest plot points that would spotlight him, while the needs of the plot helped me craft supporting characters and adjust a couple things about my hero’s background. In one case, a character I’d created who I wasn’t sure had a real role in the story turned out to be the solution to a small gap in the plot’s logic that had been nagging me. I think maybe in general, the characters and plot drive one another once the writing process gets underway, you make adjustments to each to serve the other, regardless of which you came up with first.

  6. Thank you for the opportunity to take part in the discussion. There some great comments here already and I’m going to keep it simple.
    So which comes first character or plot? Actually, I think it doesn’t matter. It’s one of those issues where all writers are different and rules would only hamper creativity.
    For me, as a writer, one of the most important things is to be excited and inspired by what I’m writing. Whether that excitement comes originally from a character who intrigues me, a plot I can’t wait to unravel, or maybe even a setting (I’ve written sci-fi where the setting came first) is unimportant. It’s what comes after that initial spark that matters and how we move forward.
    But I write across a number of genres and I do think certain genres lend themselves to a plot first approach and others to character. Thrillers tend to be more plot driven for me, romance more character driven. It also depends on whether the story is a one-off or the first in a series as in the latter usually at least one of the characters is already in place and so the plot tends to revolve around who they are.
    So do whatever works best for you and your story. And as Anne mentioned—enjoy the ride.

  7. Great posts everyone.

    I am posting to let you know that author S. L. Menear has fallen ill and will be unable to participate in this week’s Thriller Roundtable.

    Sending digital hugs and best wishes to her for prompt recovery.

    Thank you,

    J. H. Bogran
    Thriller Roundtable Coordinator.

  8. I enjoyed Anne’s comments. As a big fan, I’ve watched Bernie grow as a person and a police officer.
    A breakthrough for me was when I started developing bios for each of my main characters. James Frey in his book, HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL,suggests developing a physiological dimension, a sociological dimension and a psychological dimension to outline those traits in your characters. Once you develop these traits, you can better understand your characters’ motivations. As you develop the motivation for your protagonist and your villain, then you can see where they will clash and thus develop the tension in your story.
    This has helped me a great dealparticularly in the development of my series characters.

  9. The following post is on behalf of author John Lutz who’s experiencing some technical issues:

    Whenever I hear this question I’m reminded of running into the late Robert Fish, back in the mists of time. Fish was the author of, among many things, a series of brilliant Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and the novel Mute Witness, that inspired the movie Bullitt . Fish was foaming at the mouth and waving a copy of a review that criticized a mystery novel for “wasting the reader’s time” by using too much page space and wordage in creating characterization (and description). This, the reviewer maintained, wasn’t at all what the reader wanted, and would turn off the sales spigot. Mysteries were a genre and were meant to be lightly adorned riddles; and nothing more. Fish thought the reviewer had it exactly backward.
    Fish had good reason to disagree and to be angry. The Holmes stories are definitely plot driven, but Holmes remains one of the most fully realized characters in fiction. Mute Witness (Bullitt ) is character driven, and also has a solid plot that probably few people remember (They do remember the great car chase in the movie version.)
    Another example: Christie’s Miss Marple fiction is certainly plot driven, but Miss Marple herself is as real to her followers as is Holmes to his. Holmes and Marple. They both get more mail than I do.
    As usual, Fish was right.
    The reader should and can have both character and plot, if the writer is up to it. And, as Holmes and Miss Marple would attest, character usually trumps plot.
    My vote is for character.


  10. Great posts that reveal the inevitable and rich truth that not only do we all arrive at what we write in different ways, but we probably, individually, arrive at each book we write in slightly different ways. It’s enjoyable to have a feel of the kind of serendipity that different authors find on their own unique paths.

    When we analyse various elements of what we do and look at how we balance them, it is almost always after the fact of writing, and writing remains, I’m glad to say, a more mysterious activity than any amount of reflection can get to the bottom of.

    In stressing story in our genre, as I would still want to do, I have of course ‘cheated’ by assuming a level of engaging and interesting character creation that must go hand in hand with it!

    I often think it is surprising how small a thing sometimes is the seed that generates a novel. They are not often, I think, things as broad conceptually as either ‘character’ or ‘story’. A half-forgotten memory of a family tale. An image from the street. An event or a person in history you can’t quite get out of your head. A place and even the atmosphere of a place. Something from a newspaper buried at the back of your mind for years. A man or a woman faced with a decision that’s impossible to make. Sometimes even a phrase of description or a few words of dialogue. In ‘The City of Strangers’ everything that happens in New York somehow started with two memories: a Duke Ellington standard and a newsreel of the NYPD marching in the 1939 St Patrick’s Day Parade.

    I suspect it is rare that the whole sweep of a novel arrives in our heads. It grows from those unexpected, often unlooked-for seeds. And those seeds always demand different approaches. We build out and up and round them, in character and story, in much the same way we actually write, idea following idea, through character and story, each idea creating the next one; just as word not only follows word when we write, but each word somehow creates and determines the next word. Wherever we start from it is surely in the process of actually writing that the real creation occurs.

    If there is such a thing as a point where the ‘breath of life’ is breathed into a novel, that breath is in the words themselves…

  11. Michael makes a great point. The seed for Devil’s Den came from my numerous trips to Gettysburg (one of the most haunted places in America). As a retired military guy, I added to my protagonist a moderate case of PTSD from his three tours in Afghanistan, and we were off and running. He took his friend to Gettysburg, she ran out on the battlefield and disappeared. Poor Zack had a flash back from his PTSD and couldn’t remember what happened to his friend, making him the prime suspect in her disappearance.
    But I still needed to plan the PTSD in Zack’s bio and show the reader where it came from, but then, I needed to do something with it. The story grew from there.

  12. Nina makes a lot of great points in her post. I think I was trying to say the same thing, but she said it a lot better! 🙂

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