Which Came First? The Plot, or the Characters?

This is a perennial question authors get asked, and it’s just as unanswerable as the chicken and egg conundrum.

Look, let’s be brutally honest here. Authors as a whole live in a half-unreal world with their heads feeling cloudy ALL THE TIME. Fictional people fill our brains with ghostly conversations. Interesting, exciting scenes play out behind our closed eyelids. Fantasy worlds and concepts capture our imagination. Reality is pretty much optional, okay. In the midst of all this noise, pinpointing the exact genesis of a story idea or the specific birth of one character is like grasping one tiny pebble from a rushing torrent of ideas.

No gif
IDEA! New idea! Get it! Wait! Another new idea! Squirrel!

Nonetheless. I can take a stab at tracing the origins of my most recent book.

If I remember the story pebble correctly a group of us on #romancestagram were discussing our favorite tropes. (We do that a LOT.) Enemies to Lovers, of course, came up as one of the top contenders. Everyone loves a good spatting antagonists to hopelessly besotted plotline.

For some reason superheroes came to mind. Probably I had just recently watched the final Avengers movie, that was a 2019 thing right? Several years before this I read (and ADORED) the novella Superior, by Jessica Lack  and I think that novella added to the idea. Also I love the movies Megamind and both Deadpool films, writing a protagonist in those veins has always tempted me.

(YES. Being a writer means there are plots and ideas and half-formed notions in the back of your mind for literal YEARS and it all combines with current ideas into this constantly-bubbling SOUP OF INSPIRATION.  And yes, it definitely burns your fingers when you try to fish out one specific idea nugget.)

Anyway, all of that mushed together and I started thinking . . . what if? What if two enemies in a superhero universe fell in love?

The idea caught me hard and I started plotting it out. Who are the antagonists in a superhero universe? The villains. Even better, a supervillain. Having a superhero fall for a supervillain seemed too obvious, plus I’m fairly sure it’s been done already? So . . . what about a sidekick. Oooh, yes, a sidekick. Obviously, to be the loyal partner and not the main event, my sidekick would be considered kinda weak. Not too “super”.

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But, of course, narrative expectation told me the sidekick had hidden depths and more power than the big name heroes would like to admit. That gives me both a mystery to slowly unfold, and a motive. And my supervillain would definitely have a tragic past, because plausible morally-grey character motivation.

If you can’t tell, daydreaming up a plot took a considerable amount of my mental processing time.

I decided my supervillain was a guy, and my sidekick was a girl, because that sounded right. Every time I reached the next plot point, I asked myself what next? What makes my supervillain A Bad Guy, but not too bad? What power could my sidekick have which seems harmless at first glance, but is actually pretty threatening? How does she feel about being pushed to the back? What would attract a supervillain to a sidekick, and vice versa? And how would she feel if someone cool and cocky and irresistible started paying attention to her and complimenting her unusual power? Coming up with fun hero and villain names was a bonus, and I also got to throw in kissing on a Ferris wheel ride, murderous nanobots, public naughty behavior—it’s a kink, don’t judge—mother issues, kidnapping, and a ton of sneaky callbacks to superhero movies.

Every answer spawned more questions, which told me I was on the right track to an actual story and not just an imagination exercise. I wrote out a quick blurb to clarify the main story obstacles, and it made them sound pretty good.

Thus THE SIDEKICK AND THE SUPERVILLAIN was born.

dont mix

So that’s how writing a book goes, at least for me. It’s a bit like . . . tossing stepping stones into a river boiling with ideas. Each stone brings me closer to crossing. Sometimes I have to haul a stone out and begin again, and I generally have to use dynamite to blast a bunch of stones for the climax, but eventually I do get to the other side.

Does this method seem familiar? Or sound completely kooky? What stepping stones do you use? Tell me about your process.

2 thoughts on “Which Came First? The Plot, or the Characters?

  1. My version tends to be… uhm… I start with just one or two of the characters and one scene that really, truly interests me in the plot. I don’t have a full cast of characters or a full plot outline when I start. It works pretty well for me. I don’t know if I could pass it on to others, though.

    1. I kind of like that method. It’s like assembling a puzzle, making everything fit, arranging and re-arranging so you can get to that once scene that set you on fire.

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