Using My Strengths: A Plot-First Writer’s Perspective on Character Development

Using My Strengths_ A Plot-First Writer’s Perspective on Character Development.png

This past spring, I conducted a survey that asked over 100 authors to answer common writing-related questions like their favorite genres to read and write, their writing process, their future goals, etc. What I secretly wanted to know most, however, was if my assumption that the world was full of character-first writers was correct. Most writers I knew considered themselves to be character-first—that is, that their stories began with their characters and everything else grew up around them (contrast with plot-first, where the concept or plot develops first and the characters come out of that). When I got the survey results, I learned that my assumption wasn’t true. Although character-first scored higher, it was only by a slight margin. The ratio of plot-first to character-first writers was nearly equal.

I was pleasantly shocked. After that shock faded, I wanted to know where my fellow plot-first writers had been all this time. I had only ever met a handful of people who were plot-first writers like me. And, I willingly admit, I’d felt isolated from other writing peers because of it, although those feelings were in part due to self-imposed exile.

Thank goodness that phase of self-imposed exile is over. I will happily tell fellow writers that I’m plot-first and feel little need to qualify or compare. I do my best to offer my plotting skills to those who do not have them, and hope that character-first writer friends will help me polish my in-prose characters in a similar fashion. So reading the survey results was the icing on top of the confidence cake—a feeling that’s quite similar to what I described in a post that I wrote a few months ago about how discovering “my genres” gave me confidence.

But reflecting upon this subject led me to find the place where insecurity over plot vs. character first took root: the idea that plotting and characterization are on opposing sides of a spectrum and could never overlap. If I was good at plotting, then of course I couldn’t be good at writing dynamic characters. It was only when I learned to stop viewing plot vs. character as a strict dichotomy that I found a way to make my plotting brain work for me when developing story elements other than plot.

As is often said, the first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one. For the longest time I internalized the critiques about my characters and let the hurt turn into a combination of denial and a defeatist attitude. My perfectionism kept me from considering how I could improve but, at the same time, I would pretend as much as I could that my characters were the focal point of my stories. But as I matured a bit, I realized that many of the critiques were true. My characters often didn’t come across as I intended in prose. I could easily, if I wasn’t careful, forego showcasing character development in favor of making sure a chapter covered what was listed in my plot outlines. And there were times when I went ahead and wrote a story with no idea about my character’s true motivations. This usually wasn’t an issue for short stories because the conflict, plotting, and character arcs are condensed, but in larger works and when pressed for time, my true strength—plotting and organization—emerged as the dominant force and towered over everything else.

This realization was hurtful at first. Having poorly-developed characters is one of the biggest insults a person can say about your writing (most critiques I received in this area were far from being insulting, though—people were very nice about my shortcomings). But I waited for those feelings to pass. When they did, I realized…so what if my characterization isn’t great in my first or second drafts? No writer can create a draft where everything is strong. If writers who create drafts with great characterization but poor plotting aren’t doomed to never improve their plot holes, why did I feel doomed to never improve my characterization? That is, after all, the whole point of drafts: a starting point.

I also realized that my problem wasn’t the lack of skills to develop characters. If someone asked me to tell them about one of my characters, I could go on about their backstories, their families, their birthdays, even their favorite colors and foods. I spoke of them as if they were real people (which of course amused the non-writers in my life). The problem was that I was often ready to write about my worldbuilding or plot long before my character development was finished. As a result, my characters were fuzzy in comparison, and what came out on the page showed the disparity between the elements. This also reflected my approach to worldbuilding: create the overarching ideas and setting first, then place the people in it. Of course my work wasn’t done once I drew a couple of maps and created a timeline for major plot points. The lack of strong characterization in my rough drafts pointed to my writing process, not to my potential. I needed to give myself extra time to develop my characters if I wanted them to be as strong as my plot and worldbuilding.

With this discovery in hand, I knew I needed a new method for character development. Typical means of character development rarely yielded results for me—I couldn’t base a character off of a song or writing prompt, writing short stories for characters I knew little about didn’t get past the first paragraph, and I couldn’t “talk” to my characters in the way that other authors apparently could. I needed context; I needed backstory; I needed time. I’d resisted that natural bend because I tried to mimic character-first writers, believing that was the only way to be create compelling characters, but I had undermined myself. Organization could be applied to any part of the writing process. Structure could be built into plot and characters alike. Fighting against my strengths so I could try to make weaknesses into strengths would never work. I’d not only be unhappy, but my writing would never reach its full potential.

So, I started applying my worldbuilding and plotting skills to character development. I made backstory outlines. I used MS Excel to list character descriptions, personality types, birthdays, even create family trees. I made sure that the world around my character was well-developed before figuring out where they lived and worked. Most of all, I gave myself the time to mull ideas over in my head in the same way I had to ruminate about plot or worldbuilding decisions. I stopped stressing over making my characters perfect and dynamic in a short period of time. I stopped comparing my character development process to fellow writers who I deemed as superior to me. And I put aside my insecurities enough to ask other writers to help me solve character conundrums when I got stumped. Unsurprisingly, it works. I’ve made more progress with developing the protagonist of my WIP in the past few months than I had in the first two years since I created her—and that’s just one example. Some of that progress is simply time doing its magic, but in large part, I know it’s because I’ve shifted my focus to what I can do, not what I can’t do.

This “method” can apply to anyone, not only plot-first writers. It’s not just my personal experience that backs up this idea either—the famous “Strength’s Finder 2.0” test created by Gallup focuses on finding and cultivating your strengths to improve workplace and lifestyle fulfillment, productivity, and happiness. And I’m sure that other writers and artists have discovered and talked about this very subject. Even so, it deserves reiteration: focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses, and don’t try to make yourself into someone you’re not. If you’re plot-first, use that to your advantage. If you’re character-first, use that to your advantage. You aren’t doomed to failure just because your first few drafts aren’t how you or others would like them to be—and there’s no reason why you can’t fix the weak spots of your stories with the tools you have.

It’s easy to fall into comparison and feeling inadequate. That feeling still creeps upon me, like all artists, but once I stopped forcing myself to behave like writers who have different strengths than I do, it’s easier to ward off insecurities, create writing that I’m proud of, and delight in what I create. I wouldn’t give that up for anything, even if my writer friends never understand my love of outlines and spreadsheets.

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