18 June 2022

Plots and Characters


Two often-asked questions, at writers' meetings and writers' conferences, and sometimes even at readings and signings:

(1) When authors think up a story, should they start with a plot or with a character? 

(2) Which of these (plot or character) is more important to the story?

There are, as you probably know, no correct answers to these. Writers' processes are different and their opinions are different, and whatever works, works. But since this is my topic today and I don't want to end it here, please consider a couple of examples.

Plot first

Anytime the subject of plot vs. character comes up, I think of "The Choking Doberman." I don't know who dreamed up the story, or when, but it's been around a long time. Here it is, as close as I can remember it, in a nutshell:

A lady comes home from the supermarket with a sackful of food, opens her front door, and finds her pet Doberman choking in the entranceway. She drops her bag, picks up the gasping dog, and rushes him to the veterinarian's office. The vet tells her, "We'll take care of him--go home and I'll call you later." She drives back home and is picking up her dropped groceries when the phone rings. It's the vet. He says, "Get out of the house! You're in great danger--get out right now!" So she does. Terrified, she runs to the next-door neighbor's house, and watches through the neighbor's window as several patrol cars screech to a stop in front of her house. Half a dozen policemen hop out with guns drawn and run inside. Several minutes later the veterinarian arrives also, and when he gets out of his car the lady hurries up to him and says, "What on earth is happening?" He tells her that when he examined her dog he found a severed human finger lodged in the dog's throat--that's why he was choking. Assuming the dog might've surprised an intruder, the vet called the police and, sure enough, the cops found a man hiding in one of her closets and clutching his bloody hand. 

Question: Is this fine, illuminating, life-changing literature? Of course not. But it damn sure is memorable. I think I first heard the story told in high school, and I remember it to this day.

In the Doberman story, the plot--the story--is everything. It's all that matters. The characters--the woman, the vet, the neighbor, the policemen--aren't all that important. They're there only to make the story happen. I've heard this mentioned as a good example of genre fiction as opposed to "literary."

Character first

On the other side of the aisle is "Big Two-Hearted River," by Ernest Hemingway. I can't remember it in detail, but here's a quick summary:

After the war, a man goes back home and visits his old fishing spot. He hikes to the river, sits around, smokes, makes camp for the night, and goes to bed. The next morning he cooks breakfast, finds grasshoppers to use for bait, and goes fishing. He catches a few trout and loses a few and finally stops. 

And that's it. I don't mean to in any way demean the story; it's well written and certainly well known. But nothing really happens in the story. I suppose there's symbolism here--the river could probably represent life, flowing steadily past him, and the battle between him and the fish he tries to catch is an insignificant struggle when compared to the fighting he did in the war. But there's no plot at all. The character is everything. This story would fall more on the literary-fiction end of the scale, as opposed to genre fiction. 

A clarification (I hope)

Please be aware, I don't think the plot/character issue is the deciding factor in whether a story's categorized as literary or genre. I think it's more a case of whether the viewpoint character undergoes a change in the course of the story. If that happens--if he or she becomes a different person by the time the end rolls around--it's literary fiction. If the character remains pretty much the same at the end (think James Bond or Nancy Drew or Indiana Jones), it's genre fiction. There are other things to consider as well, like entertainment vs. enlightenment, and the sophistication and beauty of the language, etc., but I believe the man thing is the extent to which the POV character experiences a change in the way he or she looks at life. And it's not always the main character--it's the viewpoint character. Atticus Finch and Shane and Jay Gatsby aren't the ones who undergo this kind of emotional change; Scout and Bobby Starrett and Nick Carraway are. They're the people who are in a position to observe what happens and learn the most from it. It is for this reason that I believe some genre stories like Westerns and mysteries and science fiction can also qualify as literary fiction. (My opinion only.)

NOTE: I recall seeing much of this plot vs. character debate years ago in a book called 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias. Or at I think that was it. If I'm wrong it wouldn't be the first time. (Maybe the second.)

So, which should come first? Plot or character?

That depends on the author. Almost all my writer friends tell me they come up with the character(s) first and only then do they worry about giving those characters something to do, which is the plot. I do it the other way around. I always come up with the plot first, and only then create the people (and try hard to make them interesting) who will act out the story.

One thing to bear in mind is that your characters don't have to be any less interesting if you come up with the plot first. I even think the characters can turn out better when they're tailored to meet the requirements of the storyline.

Which is more important to the story?

That varies as well, depending on who you ask. Personally, I probably prefer plot-driven stories to character-driven stories because I think entertainment is the one most important thing I can try to deliver to readers. If they somehow happen to be enlightened or educated as a result of the story, that's icing on the cake, but if they're entertained--if it's a good story--I feel I've done what I set out to do. On the other hand, I know many writers, and readers too, who always prefer strong characters over a strong plot.

Stephen King once said, in his essay collection Secret Windows, "All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven."

As for literary fiction vs. genre fiction, which always seems to go hand-in-hand with discussions of character vs. plot, the best definition I've heard of those terms comes also from Stephen King, in a taped interview I saw years ago. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something like "Literary fiction is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things, and genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

I think we can all agree that the very best stories and novels and movies have great characters AND great plots--they're not mutually exclusive. That's why Lonesome Dove and To Kill a Mockingbird and The Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather will be around forever. The rest of us writers should be so lucky.

Your turn . . .

If you write stories, which do you come up with first? Always the characters? Always the plot? Sometimes a mix of the two? And which do you think is more important to the story? Let me know, in the comments section.

See you again on July 2nd.


  1. Unless I'm using a character who debuted in a previous story and is now part of a series, such as my PI Morris Ronald Boyette, plot and character arrive on the page at approximately the same time.

    With my stories, the plot often can't exist without that specific protagonist, and that specific protagonist wouldn't be there were it not for that plot.

    1. Don't know why I'm "Anonymous."—Michael Bracken

    2. Good points, Anonymous (uh, I mean Michael).

      I do in fact wind up thinking first about the character if it's a story in a series. Otherwise, though, I confess I have no idea who my characters will be or what they'll be like until I have a plot in mind; then I populate that story by letting them audition for parts. I've been doing it that way for so long now, I doubt I'll change.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

  2. I'm with Michael on this one. Other than that, the majority of my stories start out with a scene where unnamed as yet characters are involved in a tense situation. The characters are not yet developed and I have no idea what the plot is. All of this comes along as the situation is somehow resolved. This method is probably why I have so many story starts to choose from when ready to sit down and write.

    Now, having said this, "The Road to Hana" starts with the setting which soon becomes a character in itself and helps drive the story.

    1. R.T., I think you're like most of my writer buddies when you say you don't have a plot in mind when you start. (I can't start withOUT having a plot in mind.) BUT I'm thinking that "tense situation" you mentioned is the beginning of one. And I like the fact that your Edgar-winning story began with a setting!

      Whatever you're doing, you must be doing it right. Thanks as always.

  3. The Choking Doberman is a classic urban legend and in fact one of Jan Brunvand's books about urban legends is called The Choking Doberman. Decades ago I red a crime story that used it as the plot. It ends with the protagonist coming home from the vet and being killed by the wounded guy in the closet.

    By the way, the ultimate example of stories in which only the plot matters and characters are ciphers (well, maybe the ULTIMATE would be logic puzzles) are parables. We don't care why the Good Samaritan was headed to Jericho. All we need to know about the fox who wanted the grapes is that he was a fox.

    And that cartoon is by the wonderful Tom Gauld. https://myjetpack.tumblr.com/

    1. Ha! I didn't know about Brunvand's book. Or the story that used TCD as a plot. Thanks, Rob.

      Those are great examples, by the way. Also there's the one about the couple in high school who go parking while a serial killer with a hook for a hand is on the loose. The girl hears something outside the car and tells the boy to drive away, fast. Later, when they're home and have calmed down a bit, the boy gets out, goes around to her side of the car to let her out (guys used to do that, for their dates), there's a hook hanging from the doorhandle. Love them urban legends!

    2. Here is a piece I wrote about Brunvand and, to my surprise, I even mentioned that famous doggie. https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2021/10/half-foaf-is-better-than-none.html

    3. Rob, thanks for the link to that SS post about urban legends. I remember it now--it wasn't even that long ago.

      "The Choking Doberman" has been told in lots of different ways over the years, and it'll always be fun.

  4. John, like you, I visualize an intriguing situation first, build a plot around it, then imagine the appropriate characters. In my second story for Mystery Magazine, the viewpoint character has to explain a death investigation to the victim's autistic son. This gave me the opportunity to lay out a complicated crime in exacting detail.

    1. Mike, I just think it's easier to do it that way. Once I have the plot in my head, I find it's easier then to make up characters who'll do exactly the kinds of things I need them to do.

      I remember that story about the autistic son. I also especially liked your story in one of the Crimeucopia anthologies called "The Tell-Tale Armadillo." (Makes me want to write a post about titles . . .)

  5. Joseph Benedetto18 June, 2022 12:40

    On reflection, it is almost always the plot that comes first with me. Like M.C. Tuggle, I often visualize an intriguing scene and build a story around it.

    1. Me too, Joseph. That's the way I HAVE to do it. But I think we're in the minority . . .

  6. I start out with a scene (with or without dialog), and once in a while a place, and then start trying to hash out who / what/ why.

    1. I'm thinking a lot of writers begin with a scene or a setting, Eve.

      Whatever works, right?

  7. Great post, and an important question.

    Don't turn away any good idea, whether plot, premise, or character! I usually have an idea of a problem or situation that needs to play out. Finding a central character is a natural extension for me.

    As a reader, plots are interesting, but only characters can be truly fascinating. The stories I remember had brilliant characters on the page.

    1. Well said, Bob. I agree. For me, though, the plot ideas just seem to come to me easier and more often than ideas for characters, settings, etc. Believe me, I won't ignore any good idea, or I sure hope I wouldn't.

      Thanks as always!

  8. Great post, John. I especially like your requirement that the protagonist must change/grow for the story to be "literary." The question is a tough one for me, so I had to ponder it overnight.
    My short stories are somewhat like Michael says. They usually begin with a plot or incident idea and the character who will make that plot work grows out of the events with little or no backstory. Most of my short story characters couldn't exist outside the world of their particular tale.
    Since most of my novels are parts of a series, the plot is more apt to develop around the characters already in play. Since both series follow a PI, there's often a client to start the ball rolling, but it has to be a case that the PI would get emotionally invested in.
    This is one of those questions I might be better off not thinking about it at all. Sometimes, thinking about something gets in the way...

    1. You're right, Steve. Not only does the character vs. plot issue not really have a set answer (every author's different, every story's different), it also makes my head hurt to think too much about it. And what does it really matter? As someone said earlier, the best stories have good plots and good characters as well, and that's what we have to strive for.

      Thanks for puzzling over this!

  9. Great question and examples, John! I guess I'm the only person reading this that has never heard the choking Doberman story. Where have I been? I won't forget it though! Like you, I'm a plot first guy. Though sometimes it's not a plot entire, but just a problem or situation and I work out from there building characters. My current story in EQMM, The Wedding Funeral, is based on an urban myth of sorts. In any event, it saved me from having to come up with a plot on my own, which is hard work. Thanks for the article, John, I enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks, David. And once again, I still think you (I, we) can still come up with interesting characters even though we think of the plot first. The final result (how's that for a redundancy) is what counts.

      Can't wait to read The Wedding Funeral. Great title!

  10. Great questions! I'm trying to ponder them as best as I can with my beginner tenor sax player "serenading" me in the background. (Kudos to his band teacher for dealing with THAT all year.)
    So, just the other day I was cleaning out my Google Drive, and I came across a short story that I'd tried to write about a year ago. I got about 5 paragraphs in, but I just...couldn't figure it out, so I abandoned it. Later in the summer of 2021, I started writing short stories featuring a new character/universe, and when I realized that the story I'd abandoned could fit into that world, I tried again. The story basically wrote itself, and it's one I'm really proud of. I guess what I learned from that experience is that it's one thing to know the plot, gist, or major beats, but it's a totally different thing to know those things in the context of the characters' lives and world. When those two things intersect in a big way, then magic can happen.
    As a reader, a plot-driven story will always entertain me, but the stories I truly remember had characters who made me care about them long after the book was read.

    1. What a great story that is, Ashley-Ruth, ABOUT the story you wrote. Glad it worked out that way for you, and yes, when all that comes together and you know it's right at last, it's truly a great feeling. Congratulations!

      As mentioned several times here, when both the plot AND the characters work, you've got a winner of a story.

      Thanks for stopping in at SleuthSayers!

  11. Wonderful, as always! As for my own stories, I usually start with the plot or a germ of a plot, sometimes with the characters ("Hey! How about a riff on the Hardy Boys?") and sometimes with a title (Like: "Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice" which I may never write, and that may be just as well!)

  12. Hey Jeff. Thanks for mentioning the fact that titles can sometimes be the incentive for a story. I can think of a few of mine that happened that way--"The Medicine Show," "What Luke Pennymore Saw," "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," several others. Whatever gets the ball rolling . . .

    I like "Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice"--I think you should go ahead and write that one. (Did Adam and Eve do away with Bob and Carol?)


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