What comes first, plot or characters?

The author of Story Genius would vehemently say the main character (MC) comes first—not just the MC but the MC’s history. According to the author, Lisa Cron, story is not at all the same as plot. What we crave in a story is to be carried along by the MC’s internal changes as he/she struggles for something—that thing he/she needs most in life.

According to Cron, when we read, our brain activity is not passive but is that of an active participant. Our activity is curiosity, with engaged involvement in the emotional journey. What the story is about is not “this happens and then that happens.” The story is about a difficult goal, a story problem. There has to be a compelling inner story layer. The protagonist’s internal struggle is the “third rail” or live wire that sparks our interest and drives the story forward. She writes that beautiful prose can actually be alienating if this third rail isn’t ignited and sustained. That’s so true, for me!

Context defines what matters, and the past provides the context. The MC needs a fully developed past, a pre-existing inner story, and then must face something that will force hard inner change. That’s what we, as readers, crave. Horace said, three thousand years ago, that powerful stories begin “in the middle of the thing” – in Latin, in medias res.

All stories make a point. The heart of a story, what it’s really about, is the MC’s internal conflict.

As I read Story Genius, I thought back over my first series and the current one I’m writing, and realized that I was following along a third rail for my MCs. It developed naturally from first draft to later drafts. It also came to me that their main internal conflict had some similarity, though in different contexts. I suspect writers will often find that the internal conflicts that emerge in their stories reflect deep conflicts they’ve faced in their own lives.

Whatever the MC’s need, there is something blocking it. Chances are, the main character has settled for something less than perfect. They’ve fallen prey to a misbelief. Only a major overturn of their world will lead them to change. We need to enter the novel with the protagonist already wanting something which the misbelief keeps her from getting. Her history explains why she wants what she wants, and why the misbelief has such a hold on her. That’s why the author needs to know her history even if only crucial aspects are ever revealed in the novel itself. We have to know what getting that thing will mean to her. This is the case for any genre. She has a past and a worldview.

A likable main character, male or female, is relatable, flawed, and vulnerable. In life, what we hide from the world is what we want most to know about others. (I’ve certainly found that to be true.)

I loved this particular passage:

We get so used to things not being fine, we forget what fine is, and so, what we once recognized as a problem no longer seems like a problem at all. That’s not good, because not only does it remain a problem, but it’s now free to poke around, unobserved and uninhibited, [gathering] force just beneath the surface…”

From Story genius by lisa cron

I found the first eight chapters of the book very insightful. Some of the rest, which offers specific planning tools, probably won’t be something I’ll adopt … just sayin’.


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