Which comes first: character or story?
By Chris Lindberg
Every author has a different way he or she goes about building their novel. It’s a brick-by-brick process, after all. You start with the story arc as foundation, then take the raw materials of character, scene, detail, and dialogue … then bond them together with the mortar of storyline and plot twist, and at that point, you have most of what can be called a novel. (After that, the real work of editing and revising begins, but that’s an entirely different story.)
A common question writers often ask (and get asked) is: where do you start? Most of the time, we start with one of two elements: character or concept. In the case of character, you somehow get an idea for a character in your head, and decide they are fascinating enough to build an entire story around. Think Harry Potter, Batman, or Jason Bourne as a few examples. In the case of concept, you dream up a high concept for a story, build a storyline, and weave in characters that will push the story along. Think “Twilight”, “The Hunger Games”, or pretty much all Dan Brown novels.
Again, each writer’s method is different. Some probably switch back and forth. When I began writing my debut novel, Code of Darkness, it actually began as an entirely different concept (and too long to talk about here). But I opened it up with a character whom I found fascinating: an alienated, weaponized young man, with a chemical imbalance baked into his altered DNA that makes him want to do very bad things. He becomes a vigilante in order to channel that fury into his own brand of justice, but he has inner demons to battle. And unknown to anyone, there are others out there like him …
While working on this first draft of Code of Darkness, I also spent time doing character studies, to broaden my comfort level with writing different kinds of characters. In this process I created many new possibilities, including a widowed Chicago cop, and a small-town social worker who’d recently moved to her new home in the big city. After writing a few short stories about both characters, I decided to retool Code of Darkness into more of a modern thriller, with these three characters (vigilante, cop, social worker) as the foundation. I began revising the story to include them from the beginning. The cop could be on the vigilante’s case, closing in to make the arrest. The small-town social worker could provide his moral compass, and possibly be a love interest.
So in the case of Code of Darkness, I switched mid-stream, starting off with a concept, but then scrapping that original concept and building a better one, based on the characters I’d created. I’d love to hear how any of you built your stories – did you start with character or concept? Leave a comment below!
Trimming Down: to cut or not to cut?
One Author’s Experience
Quite awhile ago, I began writing the main character for what is now my novel Code of Darkness: a mysterious loner-turned-vigilante known only by the name Rage. I had recently graduated from college, was living in the suburbs with my parents, and commuting on a train to downtown Chicago. I decided the train would be my “writing studio.”
I remember coming up with that first line: “Rage walked into the shadowy bar with one thing in mind: vengeance.” The line contained a lot of angst, energy, and foreshadowing for what would be the first chapter of my writing life. I wrote the chapter in a few days, happy with the result, and moved on to write other chapters, getting about a hundred pages into it.
About a year later I moved downtown, and suddenly found a lot of other things to do with my time. Without the long commute to give me a “studio” in which to write, the book project was tabled for a long time.
Five years ago, I moved back out to the suburbs and started a family. I was back on the train, so I thought I’d try picking up where I’d left off. I found the old manuscript and began to put down new material. But I decided to go an entirely new direction. I scrapped old characters and storylines, and wove in new ones: a Chicago cop, a rogue NSA agent, a government conspiracy. My goal was to make the story more of a page-turning thriller.
But through all the changes, the chapters that centered around Rage stayed mostly intact. That first chapter, the one in which I’d first introduced him, and most importantly that first line, was always going to be my starting point, I’d decided.
I finished the novel at a whopping 198,000 words. Yes – 198,000. I was advised to get it down to about half that. Half my creation was going to be on the chopping block? No way was I going to do that.
But it quickly became clear that I was going to have to. So I began removing chapters, storylines, characters. In some cases I was simply trimming fat. Two revisions later, at 123,000 words, I discovered an angle that would probably cut another ten to fifteen thousand words easily: introduce the three main characters together in the same chapter, putting them in a perilous situation that would set the tone for the book. The problem with this was, what would this mean for my cherished original starting point?
I tried to find another home for it: the second chapter, maybe later in the story, but nothing worked. It just didn’t fit into the story anymore. And the problem was, the new first chapter didn’t just cut the word count, it also gave the story a much better starting point.
So after much deliberation, I said goodbye to that original first chapter, and my story became a thousand times better for it. It will always have a home in the first draft of Code of Darkness, and if enough people are interested, maybe I’ll post it on my blog someday.
So now you now the rest of the story. I’d be curious to know what all your experiences were with your first novel: how long the first draft was, did you cut anything, and if so how much … and most importantly, what was the biggest or most difficult change you made?
Chris Lindberg’s first novel, Code of Darkness, was released in August. You can find out more by visiting www.codeofdarkness.com, or visiting Facebook and searching on “code of darkness.”
To purchase Code of Darkness in paperback or e-book edition, please check out: http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?fListingClass=0&fSearch=code+of+darkness
Or search “code of darkness” on Amazon or BN.com.
You can also email him at email@example.com – he’d love to hear from you.
Have you read Code of Darkness yet? If not, clicked over to my review and find out more about it!
It was great having Chris share what happened while he was writing his first novel, don't you think? But even after all the advice...hey, I think I'm just going to continue reading all those great novels that you writers produce! Much more fun and NO frustration about changing, cutting down, whatever! LOL
Chris, thanks for visiting Book Reader's Heaven!lated articles