Which Comes First, the Character or the Plot?

Like I said I would, I spent some time this last week or so working on creating characters, using some ideas from Chuck Wending (remember, his zero fuckery guide?). It was a little more difficult than I’d hoped.

I love the simplicity and clarity of his ideas—boiling down character creation to the essence of what you need to know to create a story is great. But I don’t think the process works super well in a vacum. Maybe Wendig didn’t even intend it that way, but when I sat down and said I’m going to create some characters for this play as a next action in the project, I only got so far. It wasn’t until I started breaking down some scenes and writing dialogue did more ideas for the characters, and even more characters, spring up. Maybe that’s how it should be.

I’m okay so far with my work. The characters are not … deranged enough? Maybe deranged is too strong a word, but these are not normal people. They’re superheroes and super villains, so I think there’s some adorable psychoses that should go along with them. I mean, Batman’s a guy who runs around in a cape and tights. We should be less okay with that than we are.

Creative Process: Some character sketches for my play.

Some basic, rough, top-of-my-head character sketches.

I’m okay so far with my work. The characters are not … deranged enough? Maybe deranged is too strong a word, but these are not normal people.

I had particular trouble with the complications section, even for characters that were well-formed in my head. Here’s what Wendig says about complications:

[they] tend to be external — they are entanglements outside the character that complicate their lives.

Pretty straight forward. I think it’s the external part that makes good complications difficult to come up with when there’s not much plot established. Even if the complication is more character based, its externality has at last a passing nexus with the plot. And if you’ve got more premise than plot, like I do at this point, you can see how you could get trapped without any logical ideas.

Like I said, though, it got better when I started writing. I was two scenes in and I’d already invented three characters I hadn’t even sketched. Still, I think using Wendig’s framework to help flesh them out will be really useful, and I think that’s a good process for me, this kind of circular back and forth between planning and writing. I guess we’ll see.

This is only my second post in this creative process series, but more to come. Until then, if you’re interested in more about characters, have a look at my 25 Things About Creating Characters post.


Justin is a writer and actor in Washington, D.C. His non-fiction stories have appeared in Wired, Popular Science and San Diego Citybeat among authors. He's the author of the Station One Series and Treknology: Star Trek' Tech 200 Years Ahead of the Future.