Character or Plot First?

I have had debates with friends about whether developing a story starts with the character or the plot.  Both are critical but which comes first?  Some people say they read books because of the subject matter and plot.  It’s the plot that prompts some people to decide whether to read the material.  That may be true, but I would argue that at the subconscious level, the level beneath the subject/plot, it is the character development that is most important and gives the subject matter and plot meaning.

I have tried both approaches – writing with the plot first and writing with the character first.  In my experience, I have found that when I start with the plot, I always get stuck early on, because I find a lack of motivating force to drive that plot forward.  So then I go back and ask myself, “who is my protagonist?  What does she/he want?  Why does she/he want it?  What’s in the way of her/him getting it? What happens if she/he doesn’t get it?”  Once I have mapped out my character’s profile and her/his journey, I then have more clarity about my story, and suddenly my story has a lot more meaning, energy and urgency.

Think about the movie Wonder Woman.  It has a fantastic action-driven plot of an Amazonian princess on a path to fight evil powers in the outside world.  But it’s not the action that makes the audience care; it’s the character and her journey.  Same with Memoirs of Geisha; the subject and plot alone may have limited interest, but the characters make us care.  Similarly, To Kill A Mockingbird, a black-and-white court room drama which in itself may not appeal to people, but the characters and the high-stake setting they are in make us care.  Casablanca is a classic because of its memorable characters.  Even the James Bond movies have compelling characters that make us care beyond the plot lines.  Same with Harry Potter: what holds its fantastical story, setting and plot together is its characters.  If we think about it, the best and most memorable movies are the ones with compelling characters that we care about.

What I have consistently found is that without character, there is no plot.  Without plot there is no story.  What works for me is figuring out what drives my protagonist, what she wants, why she wants it and then I throw tons of obstacles in her way and see how she fights and overcomes them.  Once I have the character piece figured out, the story pieces fall into place.  That character journey becomes the story.  It’s what makes the audience care.

What do you think?  What works for you?