Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Writer's Wednesday: Chicken or the Egg?

Jessica Matthews discusses that eternal question --What comes first Character or Plot?

I’ve noticed that people (i.e. non-writers) are fascinated by the mechanics of story-telling and invariably, they ask what comes first in my creative process – the characters or the plot. I’d like to give a resounding simple answer of one or the other, but the truth is, it depends.

On what, you may ask. The short answer is, on the idea itself.

We’ve all met people who had an interesting career/profession or hobby or experience. It may have been someone you met or someone you simply read about in an obscure news article buried on page ten, but there was something about this individual that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go. You simply knew that you had to develop this person into a hero (or heroine). Let me give you an example.

A number of years ago, a local doctor had announced he was closing his practice and leaving medicine. He was in his mid- to late forties, and I remember wondering what would make a physician decide to give up his profession after working so hard over the last ten, fifteen years to achieve his goal. I filed away the idea for future use until one day, I knew it was time to tell his story (or my version, anyway)!

I created Dr Ethan Locke--a physician who’d turned his back on everything he’d worked for in order to find a new place for himself in life. Next, I had to ask myself why he’d make such a choice, so I decided that he’d simply lost one too many critically ill patients, including his own son. And what better plot could I dream up for him than one where he had to choose between hiding himself away or preventing another parent from going through what he did? Out of those ideas, The Baby Doctor’s Bride was born.

Then, there are times when an event, a plot concept or a particular emotion sparked an idea and I could picture two characters in the middle of a particular scene. I didn’t know anything about them, but I knew what they were doing at that given moment. The Royal Doctor’s Bride is a case in point. One scene popped into my head and began rolling like a motion picture—the one where my heroine meets the hero and at the end, suspects that the hero is more than a doctor; he’s a prince. Which made me wonder how she, being an ER doctor in regular, everyday America, would suspect this in the first place! So, I began my research on royal families, asked myself the familiar questions of “why” and “what if”, and let my imagination run wild. Before long, I had my story.

As you can see from my examples, anything and anyone can spark an idea that results in a story. For me, the question of which comes first—characters or plot–is as pointless as debating the chicken and the egg issue because ‘plot’ is simply a series of events or situations that reveal who the characters are deep down inside, where it counts. The two must be woven together so closely that they simply can’t be separated without the story falling apart. Now, when I’m asked which comes first, I simply smile and say “both!”


Jessica loves hearing from readers and can be contacted through her website, She’s currently working on her 30th novel for Harlequin!


  1. Great blog Jessica! As a writer (I say that but I'm unpublished - but hey I still write!) I too get ideas from "both". My latest wip came from a travel brouchure and an island off Greece that was used as a leper colony! Take care. Caroline x

  2. Hi Jessica,

    What a fascinating topic. As I'm currently trying to come up with a plot and characters to go with my opening hook it's a particularly appropriate one at the moment. I usually start off with a scene and then build characters and plot from there.

    My current scene involves a woman pretending to be a singing telegram girl to get into an exclusive gentlemen's club so she can track down the world-famous architect who is about to knock down her childhood home. Only problem is everyone there (the hero included) has mistaken her for a stripper!

    Now I'm trying to figure out what happens next and who these people are. I suspect they may have met before... but that's about it.

  3. Great post, Jessica - really interesting to see how it works for other people. I too get snippets. And then things seem to build up (my Norway book being a case in point).

    Gorgeous cover, too!

  4. It was great hearing from you all. Good luck with your stories, Caroline and Heidi! Email me at and I'll send you an autographed copy of one of my books!