Today, Character Definitely Comes Before Plot

When I finished the first draft of my WIP and after I did the happy dance, I decided I was going to do some major plotting before I started on Draft 2. I had spent enough time with that exploratory first draft and now I wanted structure. Big time.

So I opened Scrivener and I started tossing in scenes, and I was happily and busily adding cards to my corkboard.

Until…I wasn’t.

As happens all too frequently, I ran out of scenes–I ran out of ideas for scenes. When I hit this spot, I go back to character. My exploratory draft made me familiar with each of my characters in a sort of gray, blobby, nebulous way, but did not really put me in touch with what they want, why it matters, and–most important–what actions they’ll take to try and get there.

Today, I started working on the father character, someone I love a lot, but, no…don’t really understand. And I was drawing a blank, but taking a stab at who he might be and what his goal could possibly become, and I was only getting so far until…

I realized I was giving him a goal very similar to the goal of my MC’s would-be boyfriend. Oops. I almost gave up then, because you can’t have too characters with the same personalities and same needs, right? Wait…what if they start at the same point, but end up changing in very different ways–one much more successfully than the other? Then what you’ve got is…such a lovely word: CONTRAST! I mean we’re talking about the two men in the book, both of whose goals revolve around loving a woman (different women!), and we’re looking at one generation following the other and needing to do things very differently.

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

From here, things took off–this glimpse of similar goals with different paths led me deeper and deeper into who these men are, who they need to be, and which–if either–is going to succeed. Along with why. And guess what…

Character led to plot.

I’ve set up maybe a half-dozen more scenes this morning and moved at least that many more around on my corkboard, because–as one thing happens, it sets off another. And when that thing happens, it sends something else into a new spot. And so on and so on and so on….

This, to me, is one of the best cures for writer’s block, backing up to the who ARE these people and what the BLEEP do they want? Yes, it involves some fixed-and-dilated starting at the computer. Yes, it means resisting the impulse to pound your head against your keyboard. Eventually, though, the wall cracks, and a brick falls down and then another brick and, finally, the story starts to come.

And, of course, that brings on yet another dance of joy.

Here’s hoping the productivity fairy zings her wand over your writing space today!


  1. Eventually, though, the wall cracks, and a brick falls down and then another brick and, finally, the story starts to come.

    Love that metaphor! Perfect for someone who is immersed in Berlin Wall research and feeling majorly overwhelmed by all the material.

    I’m at a lovely point in the process of book writing when everything is zingy and new and full of possibilities – but it’s also hard to be patient about getting the story out!


    • beckylevine says:

      When you’re doing research, do you watch for the little pieces of the real story that do go ZING? Is that how you get started?


  2. That’s a good way to put it. I think I am always looking for the heart and soul of the historical story – it’s similar to what you are doing – asking who are these people and what do they want?

    I figure my character wants what real people in history wanted. Safety, family ties, love, hope, wellness, to be treated with compassion etc. I try to look for that universal experience or desire that will connect the reader to the historical story. Then I try to create a character who my reader will care about.

    And there are always those zingy moments and pithy quotes or heart wrenching experiences that get me going.

    I really enjoyed this post. I love to read your thoughts on process and I also love the pure joy of the Disney clip and as well as your process.


    • beckylevine says:

      That’s so it, Joyce-it has to be the universal. It’s doubly tricky, I think–first finding the universal and then figuring out how/if it can resonate with kids/teens–not just us. πŸ™‚


  3. What a great moment for you! My characters often seem to point me back in the right direction, too…even if it takes longer than I would have liked.

    Your happy dance is inspiring…thank you πŸ™‚


    • beckylevine says:

      Wouldn’t it be nice if they could do this really fast? Guess we have to let them take their time, though. πŸ™‚


  4. nrhatch says:

    If you’re happy and you know it, write some more.
    If you’re happy and you know it, write some more.
    If you’re happy and you know it, then your WORDS will surely show it.
    If you’re happy and you know it, write some more.

    Glad you’re doing a happy dance.


  5. Kelly Fineman says:

    Such a thoughtful, inspirational post. And such a great point. Thanks for this, Becky – and I hope your work continues to go well!


  6. Wonderful post, Becky! Sounds like you’re doing some terrific work. When you can find and develop themes like that, you can make a book resonate very deeply — but as you say, it can take some work (and patience) to see your own material clearly.

    Have you read Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis? I think you’d like it.


    • beckylevine says:

      Amy, Thanks! I do feel a bit as if I’m getting to some of the stuff AHEAD OF TIME that I was trying to fit in toward the end of my first book. Which gives me some hope that this one might fare better. Just not thinking (much!) about the timeline. πŸ™‚

      I have another book of Darcy’s, but haven’t read this one. I’ll definitely look for it.


  7. Susan Taylor Brown says:

    It is fascinating for me to read of the way you’re going about constructing this book because it is, in so many ways, very different from my process.

    But one thing is the same, character leads to plot for me too. πŸ™‚


  8. ANother blog added to my curriculum!


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