Deep Characters for Plot-First Writers by Suzanne Johnson

Welcome to the first week of our new feature--genre columnist Monday! :) Today we have the lovely and talented Suzanne Johnson talking to us about developing characters when plot is what comes easiest to you.

Already, this makes me happy that I'm bringing in others to post here because this is a post I could never write. Characters are what come easy to me and plot is my challenge, so I'm the opposite of Suzanne. That's why this is going to be so helpful. Different perspectives open up a whole new slew of topics to cover. 

Also, you'll notice at the bottom of the post that each Monday columnist is going to give you their monthly suggestion of a great read in their particular genre. This recommendation may or may not be related to the post, but I hope it gives everyone some great new books to check out! :) So now, over to Suzanne...


Deep Characters for Plot-First Writers

Writing craft is a process—we’re all learning as we go if we want to take this business seriously. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I’m trying to excuse my penchant for taking online writing workshops or buying yet another book on technique and craft.

My latest read, bought to help coalesce my thoughts as I developed my own online workshop on plotting, is Jeff Gerke’s

Plot versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction

. I haven’t gotten far enough along for it to impart some revolutionary new approach for me to try, but I was struck by something he hammers home early in the book, and which I believe to be true:

He writes: “I believe there are two types of novelists, i.e., two archetypes into which all fiction writers may be grouped. On the one hand you have those for whom plot ideas come naturally. On the other, you have those for whom characters arise wih ease. … Rarely do you see a novelist who is naturally good at both. I have never met one.”

Neither have I.

I’m a plot-first novelist. I come up with a big What-If idea, spin a story around it, and then go searching for characters to do my bidding. The result, as anyone who read a first draft of my first novel would agree, is a rambunctious story peopled by characters so cardboard they barely qualify as one-dimensional. Some books like this get published and widely read (clears throat and mumbles *da vinci code* mumbles), but not many, at least not outside the thriller genre.

One of the writers in my critique group is a character-first writer at the other extreme. His writing is lyrical and mouthwateringly rich. His characters are deep and I want to know them and learn more about them. But they don’t actually DO anything, and I worry that his book will never get written because he can’t wrap his head around the plot to sustain them for 300 pages or so.

The ideal, I think we’d all agree, is a book that combines the best of those two. It’s just that we have to work extra hard to make up the shortcomings on whichever side of the plot-first/character-first spectrum we fall on.

For my workshop “textbook,” I deconstructed the plot of J.R. Ward’s

Dark Lover, the first in her wildly successful paranormal romance series, the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I chose this not because it’s my favorite series (it is), and not because it’s the best book in that series (it isn’t, at least not to me), but because this book—this whole series—is such a perfect blend of plot and character.

In her Black Dagger Brotherhood Insider’s Guide, Ward talks about the series, and about her process. This whole empire, whose tenth book will be released next spring, came from a group of characters formed inside her head, who wanted out on paper. Wrath and his “brothers” came first, because Ward is a character-first novelist.

She’s also incredibly disciplined, and compensates for her character-first nature by serious plotting. Her “outline” for Dark Lover ran forty-four pages.

So, how do plot-first and character-first authors compensate for the part of their writing that don’t come easily to them?

As a plot-firster, here are some techniques I use to get to know my characters:

*The interview.

Ask them questions. Don’t filter their answers but type them out as they come into your head. It’s a great way to find a character’s voice. Don’t just ask deep, meaningful things like “What do you want most in life?” Ask them things like “What did you eat for breakfast this morning?” or “What kind of underwear are you wearing?”

*The character sheet

One of the best books I’ve found with character questionnaires is Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life.

*Visual cues.

Look in magazines or online to find people who look like the people in your head. Having a strong visual reference as you write can help with better descriptions not only of appearance but actions.

*Narrative shifts.

If you’re writing in third-person POV, shift to first-person for a while (it’s easy to shift it back). If you’re writing in first-person, shift to third for a chapter or two. If you’re writing from the POV of one character, rewrite a scene from another character’s POV. The change of perspective seems to plug into different parts of the writing brain and help you figure out how your character would respond to plot points.

*Find your character’s type.

I discovered Enneagrams about a year ago and never looked back. This is a great tool for finding which archetype your characters fits into, and how he or she will respond to different scenarios based on type. You can find online info at but I ended up buying a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Power of the Enneagram.

*Think like a Shrink.

In generic terms, this is just studying your character’s psychological makeup to look at past events that contribute to behavior. But there’s also a great book by this name by Dr. Harold Rosen.

Suzanne’s Recommended Read for August:

Dark Lover, first in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, by J.R. Ward

In the shadows of the night in Caldwell, New York, there's a deadly turf war going on between vampires and their slayers. There exists a secret band of brothers like no other—six vampire warriors, defenders of their race. Yet none of them relishes killing more than Wrath, the leader of The Black Dagger Brotherhood. The only purebred vampire left on earth, Wrath has a score to settle with the slayers who murdered his parents centuries ago. But when one of his most trusted fighters is killed, leaving his half-breed daughter unaware of his existence or her fate, Wrath must usher her into the world of the undead-a world of sensuality beyond her wildest dreams.

Suzanne Johnson is an author of urban fantasy “with romantic elements.” Her first book, Royal Street, a magic-based fantasy set in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, will be released by Tor Books on April 10, 2012. Two more in the series will be released in Fall 2012 and Spring 2013. Find Suzanne online at her Preternatura blog, or read about her books at her website.

*Look for more from Suzanne here every 3rd Monday of the month!

So, are you a plot-first or a character-first author? If you’re character-first are you a pantser (usually character-first writers will be)? Or do you, like J.R. Ward, compensate by rigorous outlining?