The other half of that “chicken or the egg” thing: plot.
The short answer is: No, Carey, it is never wrong to create characters to fit your plot — particularly if it is an intriguing one. Especially if plot is all you have.
To my mind growing a novel out of plot may be easier than growing it from character because you have momentum, some idea where the story is going, some path to follow. The first thing to do if the Muse has given you a plot to work with (after you thank her) is to push to develop breadth and depth to what you know. “What happens next?” is the logical question to ask. Keep asking it until you run completely out of answers. When you do, consider what happened before you entered the story, or what ramifications your story line is likely to have.
Of course you will discover it is almost impossible to expand on plot without beginning to develop the people you need to act out that plot. Begin by noting qualities/skills etc. your characters will need — or will need to develop in the course of the story — to run the race you’re setting out for them. As you endow them with those traits, keep in mind that each one of them has negative aspects that will complicate the character’s path — AND offer new avenues to follow. For example: A hero who’s bold and aggressive (Good for fighting dragons.) might also be a irresponsible and reckless. (Bad when he’s off hunting the dragon leaving the heroine unprotected.). INTERESTING when the heroine has to find a way to defend herself.
By the same token, characters should have weaknesses that will impede their progress through the plot. Giving characters weaknesses makes them vulnerable, human. Overcoming those weaknesses makes the characters heroic. Exploiting those weaknesses creates tension (within the characters and within the situation) that doesn’t depend entirely on plot. This kind of thing involves readers in the story and makes them care about the people you’ve created.
Don’t be afraid to head off in the wrong direction as you do your plotting. You’ll run out of story if you’ve taken a wrong turn. You’ll probably run out of story at some point in the writing, anyway, no matter how well you know your characters or how carefully you construct your plot. It happens to everyone. Just back up until you feel as you’re on track again and set out on a different course or with an altered motivation.
It’s really as simple as that — and as difficult.
There are actually two points I hope these ” chicken or the egg” columns have made. First, that no matter what people tell you — you really grow a book from plot and character simultaneously. They are contiguous, one flowing into the next. It doesn’t matter where you start or what grows out of what — plot and character are completely interdependent. If you’re cobbling together a story it’s impossible not to use them both. Though one may be easier for you than the other.
The second point is, that as long as you are writing people will tell you there are rules about how you should go about the process. “Grow plot from character!” is one of them. But what rules are — less adamantly spoken — are tools someone has developed to make this incredibly mysterious and difficult task easier. Exploring these rules/tools can be exciting and rewarding. They may offer you an insight or suggest a technique you might spend years developing otherwise.
By the same token, the rule/tool someone gives you may prove ineffective for the way you think, the way you write. And that’s okay. When I dig in the garden, why should I have to use my husband’s shovel when my trowel is more effective for the jobs I do and brings me closer to the earth? When you write, why should you feel obliged to grow your story out of characters, when growing it out of plot is what works best for you?
Of course someone said essentially the same thing years ago, creating what I think of as the writers’ mantra. It was Somerset Maughan, and he said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
So essentially, he didn’t know the answer to that chicken or the egg thing, either.
Grow where you’re planted.