Friday, June 12, 2009

Guest Blogger Jeff Gerke: Plot-first or Character-first?

We invited Jeff to blog today and next Friday because he asked us to test drive a plotting tool he developed for fiction writers a while back. I like what Katy said about her experience with Jeff's book: "It's like having a brilliant editor at your elbow for the whole process." Curious? You should be. Jeff brings years of experience as an editor, novelist, and publisher to your elbow too.

I believe there are two kinds of novelists in our world. Of course every writer is an individual and no one writes entirely like anyone else. But when you break it all down into its simplest elements, I think you can put every novelist into one of two groups.

You're either a character-first novelist or a plot-first novelist.

A character-first novelist has character ideas all day long. Interesting people populate this writer's imagination. This writer is constantly coming up with cool issues and fears and backstory for fascinating story people. This kind of novelist will have more heroes and best friends and mysterious women in black than she has stories to put them in.

A plot-first novelist, on the other hand, gets story ideas like crazy. Ooh, this guy could totally be a double agent and that's why he's here with the bomb before the president makes his speech that starts the war! Plot-first novelists create fascinating stories and nail-biting plots that make their character-first brethren's minds spin.

The problem with being a plot-first novelist is that most of her characters are more like furniture than people. They don't have real personalities. Typical characters in these writers' books are "the girl" and "the friend" and "the bad guy," which is to say they're basically just more plot elements. They're in the story so that when the truck blows up and they're killed, it gives the hero a reason to go on his rampage.

The problem with being a character-first novelist is that her books are filled with beautifully drawn, realistic characters--who sit around doing nothing. We get manuscripts full of exquisite dialogue and unforgettable story people, but then we fall asleep because there is no story for these interesting people to live out.

A great novel has both strong characters and a strong plot. But how do you do both if you are, like most novelists, naturally better at the one and weaker at the other?

The solution is twofold. First, you have to dedicate yourself to doing the very hard and counterintuitive work it will take to produce excellence in the area you're not strong in.

Plot-first novelists draw shallow characters partially because they don't think they're important but also because it almost hurts mentally to put in that work. It's like making yourself do a semester of calculus if you're terrible at math. It's the same with character-first novelists trying to come up with good stories. It's so much easier just to do one more exploration of a relationship than it is to figure out three-act structure.

So the first thing needed is to agree with yourself to do the work to get better at what you're weak at. Until you decide that crafting a great character is just as important as writing the scene in which the plane crashes, you're never going to do it. Until you decide that it really is vital to give your story a satisfying structure, you'll simply skip it. Your novels will all remain lopsided and defective. And probably unpublishable.

The second thing you need to do is learn how to get better at the thing you're weak at. There are many books and electronic writer's helps tools that can help you. I have developed two myself: one for character creation and one for plot creation. These are the tools I use in my own writing, and I know they can help you.

Next Friday, I'll summarize Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist and How To Find Your Story, but for now it's enough that you 1) recognize whether you're a plot-firster or a character-firster and 2) commit to doing what it will take to strengthen your skill in the area where you're naturally weak.

By the way, some writers say they are setting-first novelists. I know what they mean, but usually you find out that the setting is, to them, really more like a character. Like Narnia or Middle-Earth or Avonlea. These people are usually character-firsters. Others tell me they're murder-first novelists, but these are really plot-firsters who begin with that element of plot and build the story from there.

You can purchase Jeff's e-books mentioned in this blog at


Latayne C Scott said...

Oh! I'm poster-first :) !

Great column, Jeff. You point out something that's so important -- figure out what you don't know and can't do well, and fix it!

When I wrote my novel I knew that characters and descriptions aren't hard for me. They inhabit me.

But for plot rhythms-- I sought professional help!

Thanks so much.

Latayne C Scott

Cathi-Lyn Dyck said...

Oddly--or maybe not so much--the first thing that came to mind was query writing: How to show a balance of skill and focus in those short paragraphs. It's as challenging as poetry.

Thanks for the think. :~)

Patti Hill said...

There's nothing tougher to write than a query letter, Cathi-Lyn. Your comparison to poetry is spot on because every word must carry its own weight and not one ounce more. I get the heebie jeebies just thinking about writing a query letter.

Oh golly, wonder if they requested a query letter in iambic pentameter. [Insert scream.]

Janet said...

I know where I fit on the spectrum. Characters, for sure. To find my next plot point I just think "How would So-and-so react to what What's-his-face just did? I've read tons of stuff on plot structure, because I felt I needed it. And I usually felt like I've learned something. Anything I've read on character development seems too painfully obvious to need saying.

Despite all the reading, I am sure I could still benefit from Jeff's wisdom.

Latayne is spot on when she says she's good at characters and description...

Anonymous said...

I'm most definitely of the character-driven persuasion and I've been using Jeff's "How to Find Your Story" in the creation of my WIP. This is the first time I've done this kind of plotting before writing a book. The thought of outlining has always been enough to keep me from writing altogether, but a resource like Jeff's is ideal for someone like me. I can be as in-depth (or not) as I want to be, and I'm already finding the benefit of filling in the boxes of his Plot Worksheet (to whatever degree I wish). The worksheet means I don't have to think up the various elements that go into my story; I only have to follow the prompts. I don't think I'll write another book without this awesome resource.

And as for queries and synopses -- all I can say is UGH! I'd rather have a root canal.

Jefferson Scott said...

Thanks, ladies!


Jefferson Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

I'm a character-driven plotter, because my question is usually what should they do next. In my reading lately, I've found myself in awe of great plot twists. Hopefully I can learn from those! :)

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

i'm doubt. jeff's books are amazing...i had a plot developed out of my character's intrinsic goals before i even knew what i was looking at!

Kathleen Popa said...

I've also been using Jeff's "How to Find Your Story" in my WIP. He asks just the sort of questions to layer both depth and excitement into a novel.

Wonderful post. Thank you, Jeff!

Lori Benton said...

Looking forward to MLP getting their store up and running again so I can purchase Jeff's book, How To Find Your Story. We don't use PayPal!

Katie Hart - Pinterest Manager said...


Good news! The Marcher Lord Press store is back up and running!

Marcher Lord Press Publicist

Debra E. Marvin said...

I'm late to this party but I'm looking forward to next (this friday's)post. I'm a plotter. I have to limit the plot twists and it's taken me most of the book to get into the characters' heads completely.

Looks like I'm in the minority here. I'll be checking out this book.