How to Write a Novel: Tip #1 Character vs Story Plot

If you’re wondering how to write a novel – or more importantly, how to start a novel – you’re at the “write” place!  Each week, for the next few months, I’ll be posting tips and best practices for fiction writers on the blog.  So let’s get started!


Tip #1:  Character vs Story Plot

Before you write a word of fiction for a book-length project, take a quick mental inventory of your writing strengths and weaknesses. 

Are you a character writer or a story plot writer?  

When determining how to write a novel, which strategy works best? 

“Most people read fiction not so much for plot as for company.” – Josip Novakovich

Readers of popular fiction want to suspend their disbelief.  They want to imagine, just for a moment, that something better or different exists beyond the daily routine.  When they sit down with a Mystery, Romance, Thriller, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Western, or Horror novel, they expect to don the “skin” of your characters.

Thus, a good novel serves two purposes: it will let a reader meet someone and get to know him in depth, or it will let the reader meet himself in disguise so he can vicariously live out his passion. Writer William Sloan says reader expectations boil down to this:  “Tell me about me.  I want to be more alive.  Give me me.”


Are You a Character Writer?


For character writers, the protagonist’s and antagonist’s inner conflicts, motivations, and goals determine the plot. 

Each story scene is derived from the behaviors of the characters.  To fiction writers who elevate characterization over plot, characters often take on lives of their own.  They dictate the course of the novel.  Thus, the stories seem to write themselves.

Some Characteristics of a Character Writer:

    ∙    You envision characters first.  Then you develop a story line that will challenge them and make them grow.

    ∙    You explore how your characters “tick.”  You know their emotional and psychological baggage, and you share it through introspective passages to expose your characters’ goals and motivations to the reader.

    ∙    Your story plot sometimes changes in mid-stream because your characters “tell you”  they would never behave the way that you are “forcing” them to behave.

    ∙    If you try to pull Character “A” out of a scene, you face a significant rewrite, because the scene evolved from the motivations and behaviors of  Character “A”.  Character “B” is not likely to behave the same way.


Are You a Story Plot Writer?


If you’re a story plot writer, your storyline drives your novel.  The characters’ motivations, conflicts, and goals are derived from the escalating action in each scene.  For instance, a Mystery or Suspense writer might construct a character for the specific purpose of providing a “red herring” in the book.

Some Characteristics of a Story Plot Writer:

    ∙    You tend to devise story ideas before you develop the characters who will “live” the adventure

    ∙    You focus your scenes on action and limit passages of introspection (also called “internal narration” or “internal dialogue”)

    ∙    You let your story determine the personalities of your characters — including their goals, motivations and internal (value-driven) conflicts.  In other words, your story plot determines what the characters think and say, and how they behave. 

    ∙    Since action is more important to your scenes, you can probably pull a character out of a passage and insert another character in its place without a great deal of rewriting


Which Focus is Best:  Character or Story Plot? 

“Character is plot, plot is character.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The story plot of your novel can evolve out of your characterization.  However, a character will not necessarily evolve out of your story plot.  My philosophy is this: if character matters so much to the reader, it must matter even more to the fiction writer. 

Although I started out as a story plot writer, I couldn’t sell a book until I learned to create interesting, complex, and believable characters.  In the words of literary agent Ethan Ellenberg, “If you move people emotionally, you sell books.”  (US News & World Report, Nov. 6, 1995)

But what do you think?  Are you a character writer or a story plot writer?  Which do you tend to read for, a novel’s characters or its story plot?  Let us know your thoughts about fiction writing in the comments section, below.

To make sure you don’t miss a single post in our, How to Write a Novel series, subscribe to our RSS feed.  You might also want to check out the e-book, How to Write a Novel that Sells.  ‘Til next time, keep the faith, and keep writing!  

Here are the links to the fiction writing tips in the How to Write a Novel series:

Tip #1 Character vs Story Plot

Tip #2 Study Your Market

Tip #3 Emotion Sells Books

Tip #4 Crafting Scene One

Tip #5 Characters Must Grow

Tip #6 Beware of Backstory

Tip #7 End Chapters with a Bang

Tip #8 Good Stories Start in the Middle

Tip #9 Battle Between the Sexes

Tip #10 Avoid Head Jumping

Tip #11 Create Killer Villains

Tip #12 Great Endings Sell Books


About Adrienne deWolfe

Adrienne deWolfe is a #1 Bestselling Author and the winner of 48 writing awards, including the Best Historical Romance of the Year. When she's not writing her current novel projects, she enjoys mentoring aspiring authors by offering professional story critiques and book coaching services. Adrienne also writes a fantasy and paranormal romance blog at

8 Responses to “How to Write a Novel: Tip #1 Character vs Story Plot”

  1. Nayab June 6, 2012 1:35 PM

    I wish I were brave enough to write two books at once! I find that defining my characters is not only difficult and sometimes counterproductive without plot ideas, but also much less fun! I would venture to say that 90 percent of the time when I introduce a new plot idea my characters behave differently in writing the scene than I expected they would. Sometimes I like what they do better than what I had planned, and sometimes I don’t. But either way my characters grow from it and I learn more about them; and I think that gives my story more depth.

    • Adrienne deWolfe June 6, 2012 7:11 PM

      So true! If I trust my characters and let them write the story for me, my creative flow is stronger and faster — giving me many more pages toward my daily goal. On the other hand, if I try to “strong arm” my characters into behaving in a way that would be unnatural to their characterization (based on the parameters I’ve established for them in the story), my writing is “flat” and at some point, the flow literally stalls — sometimes until I’ve “slept” on the idea for a night or two.

  2. Nayab June 4, 2012 4:13 PM

    I use a combination of the two. Ideas usually come to me in a plot event, but then I usually play with that plot to see how my characters would act within it. If it works I keep it, if not, I tweak it or discard it.

    • Adrienne deWolfe June 4, 2012 5:07 PM

      Thanks for this great reminder, Nayab. In my current Fantasy fiction project, I often find that I invent plot ideas first, then see if they will stick, based on the personalities of my characters.

      I also happen to be writing a Romance for an E-book publisher (yes, two books at once!); and I’ve been discarding plot ideas after following your example. Scenes that worked out great in my mind, often do not make my characters grow in a “heroic” direction when those scenes start to develop on the page.

      So . . . right now, I am plotting first, characterizing second.

  3. Dana Taylor March 18, 2012 6:10 PM

    Hi Adrienne–

    I’m definitely a character-driven writer. There’s always a time when I think the story should be called “Characters in Search of a Plot.” Usually I have to go on long walks and ponder “what happens next.”

    I’m always in awe of authors who can outline their plots and then get to work.

    Dana Taylor

    • Adrienne deWolfe March 19, 2012 5:55 PM

      Thanks for sharing, Dana! I confess I’m much more oriented toward character myself (thanks to writing relationship-focused books for the Romance genre), and this orientation has made it more difficult for me to plot my fantasy novels. The good news is that I started out as a Plot Writer, so I just need to remember what I was doing right in my early writing days.


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