Marcus Gipps asked an interesting question on a panel at EightSquaredCon: do writers think of the plot first and then try to think of characters to go with it?
Since genres such as SF tend to be plot driven, I think there is a tendency for people to believe this to be the case, but it’s not the case. Plot and character drive each other.
Even the simplest of plots have characters, clichéd though they might be. If the hero is attacking the dark lord, you have two characters there right away, a good guy and a bad guy. You couldn’t have the plot without the characters: if the bad guy wasn’t bad, the good guy wouldn’t have a reason to attack. If someone just attacks someone else, the reader will just think why? If you take away the characters from a story, all you’re left with is machinery. You are, in effect, describing how a steam engine or a canal lock works. Both of these things are interesting, but they’re not a story.
Of course, just having a good guy and a bad guy doesn’t mean that you can tick the box marked character and then get on describing the world or the spaceships or the fighting. You may be writing a story but it won’t be a very interesting one, and this was what Marcus was really asking when he posed his question do writers think of the plot first and then try to think of characters to go with it? My answer? The plot suggests the characters, the characters suggest the plot. Listen to the characters, and they will tell you where the plot is going. Follow the plot, and the characters will react accordingly. If you don’t know what your characters will do, then you haven’t understood them properly, and neither will the reader.
EightSquaredCon was a great event, by the way. Superbly organised, there was a great atmosphere throughout the hotel. Well done to all involved!