The Chicken or the Egg? Character or Plot?

James Hayman:  As I start my fourth novel, tentatively titled The Crossing, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the importance of McCabe’s character to the flow of the story.  About how everything he does is driven by his sense of honor and of betrayal.  By his obsession with his ex-wife Sandy, his love for his daughter Casey, and the pull of alcohol in his life.

Like just about every other author I know, I’ve been asked a hundred times (maybe a thousand?), “Where do your ideas come from? How do you decide what your book is going to be about? ”  Most often, I’ve given the standard answer I think most writers give to this question.  “Ideas are all around you. Just be alert for them. In stories you read in the newspapers. In movies you’ve seen. The books you’ve read.”

In a shallow sense I think that’s true.  The initial idea for my first book, “The Cutting,” was somebody performing illegal heart transplants for profit. It was sparked by a movie I saw called “Dirty Pretty Things,” which was about illegal kidney transplants performed for profit in a seedy London hotel.  The initial idea for “The Chill of Night,” was the abuse of runaway children by a Catholic priest and grew out of a book I read called Our Fathers which was a well-researched history of child abuse in the Church by a former Wall Street Journal reporter named David France.

But the more experienced I’ve become with writing crime fiction, the more I realize that the answer “ideas are all around you,” is way too simplistic. As crime writers our books are by definition about crime. There’s almost always a murder or a kidnapping, a theft gone wrong or, if you’re Ian Fleming, a nefarious plot to take over or maybe destroy the world. But those surface ideas are not what drives the books.

As I write about McCabe,  I have come to understand that the story has to grow and flow out of the characters you create and not the other way around.  It’s fine to have some one-line idea about what your crime is. (Yes, The Cutting is about illegal heart transplants and Moby Dick is about hunting for a whale.) But a good novel is about character. Successful fiction, whether you’re talking about Moby Dick or the latest Lee Child thriller, is more about what drives the people than about the plot itself.   We care about Ahab.  We care about Jack Reacher. We also care what twists and turns the story takes but mostly we care because of how the story and the action affects and shapes and changes the characters. And how character leads to an inevitable conclusion.

I think Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River is one best crime novels I’ve ever read and it’s a perfect example of how character drives plot.  If you haven’t read it, or if you haven’t read it recently, I suggest you pick it up.  What happens to Jimmy Marcus, Sean Devine and Dave Boyle is determined by who they are and how they were shaped by what happened to them when they were eleven years old. After that, everything as the plot unfolds and how the three men react to the murder of Jimmy’s daughter Katie is as inevitable and meaningful as what happened to Macbeth or Hamlet.

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6 Responses to The Chicken or the Egg? Character or Plot?

  1. carol segina says:

    Yes! As a reader I will desert a series if a major character behaves in a way that
    doesn’t ring true. I have stopped reading a couple of previously enjoyed series
    when a protagonist suddenly behaved in a way that I couldn’t accept as the person
    the author had developed in earlier books.

  2. Lil Gluckstern says:

    I’ll forgive plot glitches if I like the characters. I’m looking forward to your next book.

  3. Barb Ross says:

    James, I totally agree. I feel that’s part of what I’m internalizing as I learn to be a writer. I may have mouthed it before, but now I’m beginning to understand it at a gut level. It’s not the plot that’s worth reading about, it’s the characters that are worth reading about, if you are asking readers for their precious time.

  4. sandy gardner says:

    Character, character, character.
    I’ve been following the characters of Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, Kate’s Thea Kozak series, Keigo Higashino’s “Detective Galileo” books, Colin Cotterrill’s characters in his 2 series; Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series (books, not TV); Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator; and am eagerly awaiting the next Jane Ryland book in Hank Phillipi Ryan’s series. Probably more, but can’t think of them right now.
    Sandy Gardner.

  5. So, I’m right. (see above) Your purpose here is to provoke, not really to get an answer, because, of course, there is no correct answer. There are only opinions, and different ways authors approach their story, or their story line. And, as a very successful author of many books discovered after our session last night, sometimes the answer is really simple. You say you’re having difficulties with a character? Try changing the character’s name. Plot not working? Change the plot OR try dropping a character.

  6. thelma straw says:

    Wonderful piece! I always go for a really good character in choosing what to read. And in my own thrillers characters come before plots..Thelma Straw

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