Which Comes First?
By Jeff Abbott
It is the literary version of egg and chicken.
One of the questions I get asked the most as a writer is “which comes first, plot or character”? And I have to say I admire those writers who are so consistent in their answers that it’s always one or the other. I love their certainty how one element must pop the neurons of the brain first. My brain doesn’t work that way, though. I’ve had books grow from a seed of either: a character I can’t shake or a plot that promises to intrigue.
With Panic, I thought of the book while in the shower (no laughs as to why I might be “panicking” in the shower), and its plot could be summed up in one sentence: what if everything in your life was a lie? It’s not exactly a plot, it’s a premise, but that is the first step. I thought first, well, that’s an interesting question, what would the ramifications be? And for the next day or so I doodled, thinking out what the emotional ramifications, at a most basic human level, would be of a lifetime of deception. But at that point, it’s just brainstorming with no spine: the next question toward a book is saying who would be in this situation, and how does he or she get into this mess? To whom does this horror happen? And I decided the hero of this story would be a younger-than-typical suspense protagonist, a documentary filmmaker, someone dedicated to telling the truth about difficult subjects—until he must face the truth of a lifetime of lies. At that point, character begins to drive plot: a hero like Evan Casher is going to react to situations in his own way, guided by his own personality and his limited life experience as a 24-year old film maker who has been cocooned by his family. His choices as a hero drive the plot.
An opposite effect occurred with my next book, Fear. The character of Miles Kendrick came into my head full-blown: a good, decent man who blamed himself for the death of his closest friend, and was beset by the demons of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the point that his dead friend haunts most of his waking moments. I wrote down a lot of notes about Miles, unsure how to use him in a story. He would not let me go. Then asking myself a simple dramatic question opened the doors to a plot: what would be Miles’s greatest wish? To be mentally whole again. What if a new medicine offered this wish, but said medicine was worth billions to a pharmaceutical—and people were willing to kill to get the formula? From there, I knew the kind of action that Miles—haunted by his friend, hunted by killers—would have to take, and the book’s plot, born from the heart of Miles’s character, drove forward.
With my latest book, Trust Me, plot and character nearly arrived together. I thought first of writing a book where a young character, his father murdered in a random bombing, tries to answer the unanswerable: why do people commit evil acts? At the same time, I thought of a new kind of character for suspense fiction: a psychological profiler of extremists. (There have been so many profilers in books and film who solve serial killings, but I wanted to drive onto new ground.) Luke Dantry is determined to find a way to identify and stop the next Timothy McVeigh, the next Unabomber, the next suicide bomber. So he would come into conflict, somehow, with people on the verge of turning to terrorism and violence.
The avenue for him came from research. Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only sites having explosive growth: there are now over 50,000 sites tied to extremist and terrorist content. 50,000 videos—showing everything from indoctrination speeches to how to forge documents to how to build a bomb—have been uploaded to the web. These sites provide a place for the socialization that is so critical to extremism to blossom. McVeigh wandered the country for three years, talking with fellow extremists, hardening his positions, until he parked the Ryder truck in front of the Murrah building. Now extremist groups need not worry about establishing cells in distant cities—they only need the web site to reach those who feel marginalized and powerless.
Luke, working undercover, goes after these groups. He thinks he’s safe: until he’s kidnapped and it’s clear that the people he has targeted have now targeted him. Every element of the plot is driven by Luke’s character: he’s a quiet academic, ill-equipped for a violent world, but driven by a burning need to stop the kind of pointless violence that killed his dad. Every choice in the book is influenced by who he is.
I don’t think it matters if plot or character arrive first in a writer’s brain; I think it matters far more that they arrive together at the end of the story, seamlessly joined, walking (or preferably running) in lockstep.
Jeff Abbott’s eleven suspense novels include the national bestsellers Panic, Fear, and Collision. He is a three-time nominee for the Edgar Award and a two-time nominee for the Anthony Award. Two of his novels are in development at major film studios. Abbott lives in Austin , Texas , with his family.
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Posted by BookBitch at 8/05/2009 11:17:00 AM