How A Plot-First Writer Builds Character(s)

Don't be put off by the Jim Morrison/The Doors album cover look of this book. It's really great, I promise!

I am a plot-first writer. My story ideas emerge when considering events, real and imagined, and only after all the events are in place do I try to figure characters. While my mind races happily along forming the plot, my brain comes to a standstill when it’s time to zero in on a character to carry the story.

That is, until I found this handy-dandy little book: The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders.

There are dozens of books on character-creation out there and lots of helpful resources online to aid in creating the perfect characters. I know because I’ve tried many of them. Most of these methods involve making endless lists and exploring everything in the character’s past from shoe-size to perfume preference. For some authors this is vital to the writing process, but for me, it is tedious, boring, and keeps me from writing the story.

So I was happy to find a resource that was different. Here are a few of the things from Sixteen Master Archetypes that I found helpful:

  • With only 8 Hero types and 8 Heroine types, this book narrowed my initial character questions to only a few possible answers. Yet the types are broad enough to encompass lots of individual quirks while being distinct enough that your character will fall into a category quite easily.
  • There are multiple examples from books, tv, and movies to illustrate the different archetypes. I’m a visual person, and I love being able to pinpoint who my character is like from a pool of characters I already know. (Example, is your character a Free Spirit? Think Dharma from Dharma & Greg or Phoebe Buffay from Friends. Is your character a Professor-type? Think Sherlock Holmes or Columbo.)
  • This book gives examples of possible professions for each of the character types, as well as what in their history might’ve contributed to the people they’ve become.
  • And most valuable of all to a romance writer, this book gives examples of how the various heroes and heroines both clash and mesh, their points of conflict and their points of commonality, as well as how the characters change when forced to be together.

You might be worried that the choices are so narrow as to make all characters in that category seem the same, but consider this: Harry Potter and Mr. Spock are in the same category (Professor.) Thelma Dickenson from Thelma and Louise is in the same category as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (Waif.) Plenty of room to maneuver there.

If you’re like me, a plot-first novelist who has a rollicking story to tell but searches for just the right person to inflict all this conflict and disaster on, I encourage you to check out The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes.

You can find the book on Amazon.com by clicking the title above.

How do you feel about character worksheets? Love ’em or hate ’em?

Post Author: Erica Vetsch

Erica Vetsch is a transplanted Kansan now residing in Minnesota. She loves history and reading, and is blessed to be able to combine the two by writing historical fiction set in the American West. Whenever she’s not following flights of fancy in her fictional world, she’s the company bookkeeper for the family lumber business, mother of two terrific teens, wife to a man who is her total opposite and soul-mate, and avid museum patron.

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53 thoughts on “How A Plot-First Writer Builds Character(s)

  1. I have to get this book! I’ve heard a number of authors talk about their character profiles, but that kind of detail makes me nuts. Or as you called it, boring. I like this basic framework you talk about that still gives room for possibility. I’ve actually considered using the Kiersey Personality Sorter and its personality types as inspiration.

    • Donna, I’ve not heard of the Kiersey Personality Sorter before. I have tried the Myers-Briggs test, but it was so clinical, I couldn’t get a good read on my characters from that. And it asked me plenty of questions I didn’t know the answers to because I didn’t yet know my characters well enough.

  2. I love book recommendations from other writers. Now the only question is: Kindle version or regular version?
    Back to your question: Do I like character worksheets? Yep, I do. But not the ones I first stumbled on to that wanted everything from my hero’s social security number to my heroine’s hair color manufacturer and shade #.
    My favorite resource is author Susan May Warren’s Book Buddy (http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-book-buddy/14859136), which has a slew of worksheets, including character worksheets. Susie bypasses the usual questions and gets to hero’s and heroine’s motivations, which are key to their actions and, thus, pivotal to the plot.

    • Hi, Beth, I need to check out Susie’s book. I’ve heard great things about it. 🙂

  3. I loved looking at your copy when we went on our writing retreat (which we need to schedule another one – like in November during NaNo!). I was engrossed. Such a cool tool for plot-first writers – and heck, even character-first writers!

  4. I need to get this book and go to this link. I have a character worksheet but haven’t used it yet. It seems a little overwhelming to determine so much detail before starting the story, but then I tend to develop the plot as I go along. I might be thinking one thing, but when I get there, my character does something totally unexpected. I like that, but I’m sure that’s not the right way to do it. 🙂 To me getting to know my characters as I go along is like getting to know a new person. You do that as you spend time with them – over time. I have a rough idea of who they are and where we’re going, but the details get filled in as the story develops. Does this totally scream “NEWBIE”!! ??? Thanks for the great resources.

    • Sherri, this doesn’t totally scream “newbie.” It totally screams “pantser.” There are plotters (like me) who want to know everything about a story and the characters before we start and pansters (like my co-writer) who write by the seat of their pants and discover the story as they go. You’ll also find a hybrid version. It’s all about finding what works to produce the best possible book 🙂

      • Amen, Marcy! I think you’ll find as many methods of writing fiction as there are fiction writers. 🙂

    • Sherri, the beautiful thing about writing fiction is that there is no wrong method if it works for you, newbie or not. I used to be a total seat of the pants writer, but I’ve now switched to plotting because my editors need at least a short synopsis before I start writing.

      One of the things I really like about this particular resource is that there is plenty of ‘wiggle room’ to get to know and adjust characters as I write them.

  5. I love this book. I think I first heard about it from Vickie McDonough. When you mentioned it on your blog, I had to buy it. It’s a a great tool.

    • Julie, I first heard about it from Vickie too. I’m so glad she blogged about it, because the minute I started reading it I knew this was the tool I’d been looking for.

    • Jessica, I’ve started character sheets before and one of the stumbling blocks for me was that they all seemed to be written for contemporary stories. “What does your character have on her iPod?” My whole fiction-writing train would grind to a halt as I tried to come up with a 19th century equivalent to an iPod and figure out what my heroine would listen to. 🙂

  6. Erica, this is great information. I believe I heard of this book before and I think I even have it, only with a different cover–I have to go check my writer’s shelves in my office. If I have it, it’s one that hasn’t made it to my “read now” list and must!

    I’m not big on character work sheets, but I do them because they are helpful to me, just a pain to get through!!

    • Eileen, the cover of this book, I think, is a major drawback. It doesn’t scream “GREAT WRITING RESOURCE!” When I first saw it, I thought of The Doors. 🙂

      If yours has a different cover, I’d love to see it.

  7. Great post with a lot of solid information. Sketching out characters has a lot to do with how well a readers bonds with the storyline. Thanks for the resource!

    • Hi, Martha,

      Donald Maass said something the other day that still has the propeller on my beanie twirling. “Universal characters are paradoxically unique.”

      Still chewing on that one, but he is so right.

  8. Great, informative post, Erica. Like you, I don’t care for worksheets that include a character’s “favorite dessert” and “favorite TV show”. I like to discover those things as I go! But I do need a general idea of who my character is, why he or she is “living this story”, and what changes they’ll go through as they story progresses.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Hi, Gwen,

      It sounds like you and I have a lot in common when it comes to creating characters. It’s part foreknowledge and part finding out. I just need a general framework to begin with.

      One of the most valuable parts of this book to me is the interaction section. When I read how a Warrior and a Librarian type interact, it makes sense, it resonates, and I know how the story will unfold based upon this interaction.

  9. I’m definitely a character-first writer. I pretty much know who my characters are from the get-go, but have no idea where they are going. 🙂 I’ve never really paid much attention to character sheets and knowing what they like to eat for breakfast every morning. It just sort of happens for me. Where I need help is the plotting aspect of the story.

    • Hi, Cathy,

      Plotting came easier after I discovered The Plot Board (which I blog about over at my blog) partly because I’m such a visual person. I need a physical representation of my story.

      I hear Jeff Gerke has a good resource. Plotting for the Character-First Writer?

      • I have Jeff’s book as I am a character driven writer. But this book sounds excellent (and I’m not at all scared of the Doors similarity….classic rock chick here…) and I’m going to get it. I think even though I like to start with characters and their knots and issues, it still helps to give the character a character type that will be consistent. I will be taking Jeff’s class at ACFW conference and our preclass homework is to study the Meyers-Briggs types and pick one to use in order to plot a new story. I think I’ll cheat (the type analysis is a little clinical but very helpful if you have a love of that sort of thing) and use this book too. Thank you for sharing, Erica.

  10. I sometimes come up with a plot first and sometimes with a character, but I almost always fill out a character worksheet. It doesn’t involve things like breakfast food or favorite perfume. It’s more about major childhood events and what they want most out of life 🙂

    • Hi, Marcy,

      Is your character sheet something you came up with yourself? I’d love to hear more about it. I always seem to find my character’s backstory motivation about 1/3 of the way through the story.

  11. I’m a character-first writer. Once I know my characters, I work to come up with a plot that contains challenges and trials that will test my characters’ weakness and showcase their strengths. I’d love it if plot came as easily to me as characters. Maybe you could share some of your plotting tips with us in a future post, Erica. I’d love to hear ’em.

    • Hi, Keli,

      I think maybe I’m a plot-first novelist because so many of my ideas come from historical events. My mind seizes on something that happened in the past, then I wonder what might have been like to live through it.

      I might have to blog here about my Plot Board though. I love that thing. 🙂

      • That is my approach, too, Erica! I always start out with time periods/events first. This must be why I love your writing so much! Great info, Erica. I think character sheets can be good but only if the writer uses them as simply a tool and not as a strict policy. People are all so different. The characters I tend to remember the best are those who break the archetype.

  12. Hi Erica, Thanks so much for the informative post. Aaron and I are definitely plotters but we don’t use character sheets. We do talk about the direction for the character development and even discuss specific scenes to write, but we both tend to focus more on the events first and characters second.

    • Hi, Diane, character arc is a hard one for me, especially when I’m pushed for word count (as it seems I so often am.) I love that you and Aaron have such a seamless working relationship. It shows in your books. 🙂

      • Thanks so much, Erica! I can’t wait for everyone to read your first “big” book! It’s coming soon…

  13. In marketing, the best way to promote your product (whether a person, idea, thing or service) is to research the topic to death, immersing yourself in details and more details until discussing it becomes second nature. You end up with more material than you could ever use, but you have a vast storehouse from which to choose. When you know your product inside and out your message rings true.

    That’s what I do with my characters. Often, I have the face of someone I know in my head when I develop them; but their personality is always a compilation of many. I give them full lives, a past, present and future. I give them GEDs, diplomas and/or degrees. I keep them single or marry them off and name their siblings, children and grandchildren. They have careers and hobbies and pet peeves. I know the style they wear, the food they eat and where they shop. I know the good and the bad they’ve done in the past and how and where they were raised. I know about their spiritual lives and how they vote and why.

    I even ask questions about them: Do they pump their own gas? What books are they reading? Are they on time? Do they order the same thing every time they dine out? Are they good tippers? What is their favorite color?

    Much of this will not end up in the story. But by the time I finish developing my characters, it’s easier to determine if Bill would say that or Vivienne would do that. The reader will know, too. Knowing all this before I write the story makes my characters ring true.

    • Wow, Clarice, that is a lot of pre-writing depth. I love how every writer is different and the essentials of the process are unique to each author.

      Do you have a worksheet you fill out, or is all this back-story exploration done stream-of-consciousness?

  14. Very useful information for plot first novelists. Like yourself, Erica, I tend to seize upon an event in history first and then go from there. In order to sketch out my characters better I’ve been using A Book in A Month. It has worksheets for a character story sketch that has such things as favorite things, just the facts and going deeper, and the worksheet has a character snapshot that asks questions about character’s vital statistics which includes psychology, accomplishments, motivations, etc. It only asks me the essential questions about my character so I’ve had more success with this resource. Love to hear more about your plot board, too. Thank you for the resource mentioned. I’ve enjoyed reading all the other comments.

    • Hi, Pat,

      Thanks for dropping by the Water Cooler today. I’ve not used the Book in A Month method before. I think my mind balks at sorting out the psychology of a character, mostly because I feel out of my depth there. Or perhaps I do know those things, I just don’t call it psychology. 🙂

      • Hi Erica,
        If I’m understanding this correctly, I guess that you know most of this early. The psychology questions in this resource are about previous traumas, attitude, fears and joys. Answering these questions will help me to discover the GMC for the character. Something that I struggle with in sketching my characters.

  15. I’m a character-driven writer, so I love learning about different ways to create my characters. I use Susan May Warren’s Book Buddy to get to the core of my characters’ motivations and it helps me to plot out their journeys. Heading to Amazon to order this one. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Posting again…this time as myself and not anonymous.

      I’m a character-driven writer, so I love learning about different ways to create my characters. I use Susan May Warren’s Book Buddy to get to the core of my characters’ motivations and it helps me to plot out their journeys. Heading to Amazon to order this one. Thanks for the recommendation!

      • I recently listened to a workshop Susie gave at ACFW a couple years back, and there were several a ha moments for me. I’m really going to have to get her Book Buddy. 🙂

  16. I really enjoy Brandilyn Collins’ Getting Into Character to help me figure out the folks in my book(s). I also like to picture a movie star or character from a movie and sort of base a characters behaviors and the way they talk on that individual. Probably pretty elementary, but hey, when I have to spend hours, days and weeks with someone in my head, it helps if they look and act like Matthew McConaughey. I’ll check out the books others have listed here, too. Just in time as I start writing my next novel. Love hearing all about how you write, Erica! Great post!

    • I usually try to find photos of people I think resemble my characters, too. And Matt M. is an excellent choice. 😀

      One thing I love about this book is that it lists several iconic actors/characters that help me form a picture of the hero or heroine I’m trying to create.

    • Hi, Elva,

      I love your name! It would be so fitting for one of my characters. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by the Water Cooler today. 🙂

  17. I have a pretty extensive character sheet I fill out. While it has a few of the physical characteristics no it, I mainly focus on their motivation and their goals. Also the lie they believe about themselves. I took a great class called Plotting via Motivation. What an eye opener. I can plot but if I plot without knowing the character’s motivations, I stall. It’s such an important element.

  18. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m not a fan of character profiles. You pretty much summed up my thoughts, so this sounds like a good book to have on my shelf ready for me to dig into as I write. I’ll be putting that one down on my “To Buy List”.

    • Hi, MaDonna, I hope you find it as helpful as I did. I’m delving into it at the moment as I sketch out my next novel. 🙂

  19. Pingback: Using a Plot Board to Plot Your Novel | WordServe Water Cooler

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