Which Comes First? Character? Place? Plot? Time?

Lea Wait, here, thinking about all the questions I’ve ben asked as an author. There are many … but a few have stuck in my mind, for different reasons.

Perhaps the most difficult question I’ve ever been asked was from a very serious woman. She’d just finished writing a book, she explained. But she still hadn’t decided when her story would take place. “How,” she asked me, “How do you decide what period to set your book in?”

That question flummoxed me, as my grandmother would have said, because her question was

Lea Wait at Fort Edgecomb in the fog

Lea Wait at Fort Edgecomb in the fog

backwards. How could she have written a story that would ring true — factually, emotionally, sociologically, or geographically — without knowing when (and where) it took place? How could a writer impose a time (or place) on an existing plot? A good story grows out of a specific place and time. Even in a basic plot (Girl loves boy; girl loses boy. Girl finally finds true love.) the characters would have different feelings; different beliefs; different challenges; different possibilities; in different places and years.

Of course, when all the elements of fiction finally come together they become STORY.

But … as someone else asked me … which comes first for an author? Character(s)? Place? Plot? Time?

Another author might have a different answer, but for me, books are built around a place (often small town Maine,) a time (a specific year in a specific century)… and a defining event that either took place … or could reasonably have taken place … in that time and place. Once I know those elements, then I can go on to creating my characters (how old are they? what relation do they have to the event? to each other? how does the event change their lives? change them? what do they want? what are they afraid of? What are they hiding? What are they avoiding?) The plot is how each characters’ answers to those questions interact with each other, presenting conflict, challenges, highs, lows, growth for the characters … and an endpoint. Basically:  action.

Our world changes quickly. For a twentieth century example: the roles of men and women (and their relationships to each other) have changed decisively during the past 50-60 years. A woman who grew up in the 1950s wouldn’t see her world, her potential, her future, in the same way as a woman who grew up in the 60s or 70s … and certainly not in the way a young woman of today would. Women in different decades had different options, Different potentials. And men who grew up next to those women also saw the world differently — differently from the woman, and differently in every decade.

Move those two people back a century – or two – or more — and their worlds are even more different. Not just the physical worlds in which they live and the tasks they must do. What has changed most is their view of the world, and of their place in it. Of course, where those people live (what country? what region? state? city or town or farm?) and their race, and their socio-economic status are also critical elements to defining them.

Today many people take anti-depressants or anti-anxiety pills to help them get through their days. In the 19th century they would have taken opium, or laudanum (a mixture of opium and alcohol.) What alcohol would they have drunk? Gin, for lower glasses in the UK. Beer, for early Europeans in America. Sherry, for wealthy 19th century women who weren’t prohibitionists. Whiskey and/or beer for Irish immigrants. Cocktails, in the 1920s. Class differences; geographic differences; whether you were a man or a woman; all changed the way you accepted or rejected the idea of drinking alcohol.

And so forth.

So, what comes first? For me, a place. A time. A challenge or event or circumstance. Then the characters appear. Characters who have grown up in that time or place, or have for some reason (why?) come to that place. Characters who must cope with the demands of their time. Characters who are in conflict with parts of themselves, or with others.

Only when all of those are in place can plotting begin.

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1 Response to Which Comes First? Character? Place? Plot? Time?

  1. John Clark says:

    This got me thinking and I realized that location comes first for me, then characters. This is a good post for getting the introspection machine out of storage.

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