What comes first character or plot?

This article is part of the Rolling Mystery Blog Tours Ink group. To read articles on this subject from other members of the group, see the list of participants and their blog addresses below.

I’m really happy to jump on board for this topic. As luck would have it, I was just on a panel at the Mystery Day at the Library of Virginia that discussed this.

As I listened to a few master’s of the craft, I realized that for me it’s hard to distinguish the two. My brain just doesn’t seem to work that way. I mean I do know the difference between them, but once I think of a plot, characters to carry out the plot immediately spring to mind. They may not be fully fleshed out—but if you start with an image like, for example, scrapbooks sitting on a curb, then you begin to wonder WHO do they belong to? Why did that person leave them there? Which leads to the glimmer of this character about whom the plot revolves.

My novels all begin for me with a series of images, which relate directly to the characters and the plot. Let’s take the example of the empty scrapbooks left on the curb, which is one of the beginning scenes in my first book—SCRAPBOOK OF SECRETS . The very next action is that a group of women (characters) abscond with them. Without that action, there is no plot. Without those women/characters movement of the scrapbooks, there is no action.

You can read a lot about character-driven plots and narrative-driven plots, but I think an enjoyable read is about balance. Who wants to read about characters that are doing nothing? Or read a story without any characters?

Of course we can all point to novels that don’t work because of this imbalance. As readers we might say, “You know, I never felt like I knew that character.” Or “The plot just didn’t hook me in.”

As writers, we take note and hope to never hear those words about our books.

For me the whole process of creating story is a bit like creating an intricate weave on a rich and textured cloth—it all works together, just the right amount character, just the right amount of plot. Or at least we hope so.

Check out what the blog tour’s other writers have to say about plot and character.





Jean Harlow and Me

Jean Harlow was my grandfather’s cousin. So does that make her a great-aunt to me? I’m not sure what she was to me, but to the rest of the world she’s one of those blond bombshell movie stars that met an early, tragic death.

My grandfather, Paul Carpenter (Jean Harlow’s real name was Harlene Carpenter) was one of the biggest influences in my life. Even though he died when I was only seven, I can remember him as if we were just visiting yesterday. We spent hours together leaning over the dining room table—him teaching me how to write and read. So I knew how to read before I ever went to kindergarten. He was an artist who made his living working at newspapers in the layout department. I have several of his paintings, which I will cherish forever.

But back to Jean—or Harlean. It was always a part of family legend that she’d written to him over the years, particularly when he was in the war. I’m certain my grandmother saved them for years and years—but unfortunately, we’ve not ever found them. We still might. After all, we are still finding things—bits and pieces of recipes, photos, old letters from other family members—in the boxes of boxes of papers she left behind.

Which brings me to my point. How fabulous would it have been for my grandmother to have made a scrapbook full of those letters documenting my grandfather and Jean Harlow’s correspondence?  But, of course, she didn’t. I wonder why. She had pasted together many scrapbooks over the years—full of photos of event, vacations, or even newspaper clippings. But still, it’s hard to see any real piece of either my gram’s or my grandfather’s personalities on those pages. Now, a letter? What would that say about them? About the way they wrote? What they thought about? Were there any private jokes between Jean and my grandfather? We’ll probably never know.

Still, it’s fun to think about being related to Jean Harlow, no matter how distant. How about you? Are you related to anybody famous?