Which came first, the plot or the character?

Why is it that the character development process intimidates me and is something I seem to avoid like the plague?

Two years ago, I did an eight week workshop entitled “Writing Hurts Like Hell” with local author Biff Mitchell. I really enjoyed it because it got me writing every week in a group setting. Biff taught us how to write scenes, humour, foul language, sex etc. He taught us exercises to open up the subconscious so that our creative side could flow more easily. And our little group of six to nine people learned how to research, plot, develop story lines and yes, character development.

And of course, in the book The Weekend Novelist, I find myself at Part II and it’s all about character development. Actually I’ve been at this juncture of the book for over two weeks now and, in avoiding it like the plague, I have stalled on my writing. I don’t know what it is about this part of the process that distresses me so.

I think the issue is twofold.

One; on some level I’ve always felt like it was a pointless exercise because each story idea I have come up with is loosely based on a fictionalized version of my own life story – why do character development on myself – hello – I know me, I know the story, right?

But I know logically that character development, even if stories are based loosely on me or someone I know, is instrumental to a successful book. Readers don’t fall in love with the story – they fall in love with the character! Okay, so logically, I can see and accept the importance of character development – so what’s the problem?

Issue two; I wonder if my road block has to do with not being sure what story I want to write – before I do character development, mustn’t I be sure of who the characters will be? I am torn between five or six different story lines and I cannot seem to commit to one direction. Add to that, I hesitate because I am also torn between writing a fiction novel or my memoirs.

I know how much work character development is – sometimes it can turn out to be nearly a book in and of itself. I think, being the pragmatic that I am, I don’t want to put a lot of time and energy into something I am not certain as to how and where I am going to use it. So, am I perhaps waiting until I feel more certain of my story line and direction – something I can commit to?

And here we find ourselves at the crux of the entire uncompleted novel issue – the reason I haven’t written one (having been wanting to for nearly 20 years) – because I can’t seem to commit to a story!

I think I need to realize, accept, and embrace that it’s not about the “end goal” of a novel – I need to let that go – it has to be about the writing. I have to get out of my head, out of the rules and the dreams, and just write for the joy of writing. I know that writing, in any form, is never a waste and in doing character development, I may just surprise myself and discover a story I could have never imagined!

But it’s hard – how do I shut off that internal editor that’s screaming “where are you going with this Hartford?”

For you, which comes first, the story or the characters? What formula or structure, if any, do you follow to write a novel?

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