Character vs. Plot: The Chicken or the Egg?

The simple answer to whether plot or character is more important is that it depends on what genre you’re talking about. If you write literary fiction, character is king. The plot is secondary.

But I don’t write literary fiction. In genre fiction, specifically urban fantasy for me, both are of equal importance. A great plot with lousy characters is just as bad as great characters walking around with nothing to do.

Characters drive the story. And the story herds the characters into becoming richer and more fully formed.

So, the question becomes, which comes first?

Usually, a “what if” strikes me first. A premise hits out of nowhere, asking a question or giving me a weird scenario. Looking at it that way, you might say plot comes first.

You’d be mistaken.

For Monster in My Closet, it began as a vision of a closet monster sitting at someone’s kitchen table, reading the newspaper. From there, I knew that monsters came to the kitchen owner’s house for help. Hijinks and danger would ensue.

That’s not a plot. That’s a premise. The plot came later. Much later.

The most important thing for me from that point on was to find out who these things would happen to. I didn’t care about the what until the characters were in place. I could see the monster at the table. Who was standing there in shock, looking at him with me?

I knew all about Zoey and her back story long before I’d mapped out what was going to happen to her. Her personality and her reactions informed the plot. If I don’t know who my main characters are before I write the actual story, it’s going to veer off in the wrong direction and dead end.

I know this because it happened last year.

I’m working on a second series about a djinn. Kam is completely different from Zoey, but I started writing her story before I’d really nailed down who Kam is. The first 3000 words or so went really well. The next 20,000 words went so off course, I have to start from scratch. That first scene can stay, but the rest is complete nonsense. She was too nice. She was too helpful.

She was too Zoey.

So, which is more important, plot or character? I guess I’ll have to change my original answer and say character. In genre fiction, if the character isn’t good, the plot’s going to suck. But if the character shines, she’ll take the plot right where it needs to go.

Rachel is the author of the urban fantasy Monster Haven series from Carina Press. She believes in magic, the power of love, good cheese, lucky socks, and putting things off until stress gets them done faster at the last minute. Her home is Disneyland, despite her current location in Kansas.

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