4 Types of Novelists — Which One Are You?

Are you a plot-first novelist or a character-first novelist? When I started off as a writer, these were the only two options presented to me. I was informed that spec-fic authors are usually plot first, so that’s what I labeled myself as. Yet…it never really fit. For some reason, I never seemed to think of a plot or a character. I would think of a question.

Now, a few years have passed and I’m a bit more enlightened to the fact plot-first and character-first aren’t the only options for novel-writers. (Tweet this!) So far, I’ve identified four:

The Plot-First Novelist

plot-first-novelist-nadineTwo kids get stranded on an island filled with dinosaurs! (Jurassic Park) That would be a “plot-first” idea. These authors will think up the big journey — the journey to the center of the earth, or 20,000 leagues under the sea, or defeating “The Dark Side” of the force.

For people who come up with the mind-blowing plots, they often have a hard time rounding out the characters. Characters will turn cardboard, or pancake-flat, and trying to get these people to live and breathe in a novel is like inflating a raft using a straw.

I am not a plot-first novelist.

The Character-First Novelist

character-first-novelist-nadineA red-headed over-talkative orphan loves to read and accidentally gets adopted by an old couple who actually wanted a boy. (Anne of Green Gables.) Character-first. If you’re a character-first novelist, that means you think, “What if there was a girl who could….” or “What if there was a boy who struggled with…” and then you build the story around that. Your ideas start with a compelling character and you then go on a quest to find a good plot in which that character will thrive.

Often times, character-first novelists (whom all plot-first novelists slightly envy) struggle with creating a believable or forward-moving plot. It takes a lot of brainstorming, re-writing, re-thinking, and all that fun stuff that makes us turn gray and then rip all our gray hairs out.

I am definitely not a character-first novelist.

The Storyworld-First Novelist

Storyworld-first-novelist-nadineFour children find a new world through a wardrobe filled with mythical creatures. (Narnia) A world where people can communicate telepathically because of a certain bloodline (Blood of Kings Trilogy, by Jill Williamson) 

I first heard of storyworld-first writing from fellow Enclave author, Jill Williamson (who is currently Kickstarting an awesome chapter book series!). I gasped aloud and thought, “That must be me! I’m not plot or character first, so it must be storyworld.” She once called herself a storyworld-first novelist, which surprised me because her plots and characters are all fantastically developed (envy, envy, envy.)

These authors think of the world first and then have to sprinkle plot and characters into it. I imagine that means that characters and plot are a little harder for them, but hopefully the characters and plot evolve after the rules of the created world.

I thought I was a storyworld-first novelist for a while…until last year.

The Question-First Novelist

Question-first-novelist-nadineWhat if everyone had a Clock showing them how long they had to live? (A Time to Die, by yours truly!) What if a man found a house with doors leading into his very soul? (Rooms, by James L. Rubart)

I attended the ACFW Conference last year where author James L. Rubart spoke about developing story. He never used the “question-first” title of novel-writing, but he encouraged authors to ask the “what if” question. These writers think of a concept first. What if toys came alive when kids weren’t looking? (Toy Story) What if zombies overtook the world? (World War Z). I imagine that plot, storyworld, and characters are all a little harder to create than the concept, but the concept is what grabs the readers in the aisles of bookstores.

That’s when I finally realized what I am. I am a question-first novelist!

Which Type of Novelist Are You?


These “titles” or types of novelists are not exclusive. I’m sure there are some that I’ve missed. They are also not singular — you’re not one or the other or the other. They can go hand in hand. For example, the question-first novelist might find that his “what if” question is actually a plot! (ex. What if an alien visited earth and met a little boy who wanted to help him get home = E. T.)

The fact remains that some of us thrive with different starting points in our stories, but writing is a battle ground no matter what type of novelist you are. (Tweet this!) However, identifying your strengths in brainstorming will also help you realize your weaknesses and why you tick the way you do.

Which type of novelist do you think you are?

Have I missed one? 



I’m a plot-first novelist! What type are you? (Click to tweet)

I’m a character-first novelist! What type are you? (Click to tweet)

I’m a storyworld-first novelist! What type are you? (Click to tweet)

I’m a question-first novelist! What type are you? (Click to tweet)

Who ever said that “plot-first” and “character-first” are the only types of novelists? (Click to tweet)



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About Nadine Brandes

Nadine Brandes is an adventurer, fusing authentic faith with bold imagination. She never received her Hogwarts letter, but rest assured she’s no Muggle (and would have been in Ravenclaw House, thank you very much.) This Harry Potter super-nerd has been known to eat an entire package of Oreos (family size) by herself, and watches Fiddler on the Roof at least once a year. She writes about brave living, finding purpose, and other worlds soaked in imagination. Her dystopian trilogy (The Out of Time Series) challenged her to pursue shalom, which is now her favorite word (followed closely by bumbershoot.) When Nadine’s not taste-testing a new chai or editing fantasy novels, she and her knight-in-shining armor (nickname: “hubby”) are out pursuing adventures.
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  1. Two books I read strongly influenced the type of writer I am:

    – Directing the Story, By Francis Glebas
    – Story Engineering, By Larry Brooks

    Which pretty much turned me into question/plot-first novelist.

    • In my opinion, question/plot first is the way to go! (I’m not biased at all 😉 😉 )

      Thanks for mentioning those books! I haven’t read either of them and I’m always looking to add to my writing craft collection.

  2. Um . . . that’s tough! I’ve always known I’m NOT character first, which by default meant I was plot first (lacking any alternative). But then I read your story-world first explanation and thought, that’s it! . . . Until I read the question-first explanation! That’s even more the way I think. I’m very “what if” in my approach. I think different parts of the story arrive in different ways but overall, it’s the question that gets the wheels in motion.

    Thanks for providing some creative food for thought!

    • That’s how I started — I figured since I wasn’t character first, I must be plot first. Ha! Sounds like we’re pretty similar! I have noticed, however, that the different types can definitely mingle.

      In the end though, the character, plot, storyworld, or question is just the prompt. Hopefully, by the time we finish polishing the book, all four of those are nice and strong and you can’t tell which one started it all!

  3. I’m your stereotypical character-first novelist! My first attempt at a book turned into a 62K work document that is almost exclusively character development and description. It’s approximately 5 chapters worth of plot content. I’m getting better though!

    • I envy youuuuu! An author once pointed out to me that, in the end, all readers connect to the character — no matter how intricate the plot. So the characters must always be strong. Sounds like you’ve got the hardest part out of the way! 😉

  4. Actually, I’ve had stories start with ALL of these kinds of prompts! Sometimes my ideas come in the form of a character, sometimes a clever plot idea, sometimes a creative world, and sometimes just a simple what-if. Who says a writer always gets their ideas the same way? 😀 And any of these kinds of prompts can start as a “what if…?,” depending on how it occurs to me.

    In actually planning and outlining, I tend to be plot focused because storyworld and character are my natural strengths and I’m trying to compensate. Plot used to be a huge weakness for me. 😛

  5. I’m just weird. I first see the character in some scene and ask how did she get into that situation? Where did she come from? And where will she go next? Which, I guess, is both character, plot, question, and storyworld LOL!

    • That labels you as a “super-novelist” 😉

      Can I go edit my post now and add “scene-first novelists”? I bet there are “picture-first” novelists out there, too — prompted by Pinterest. Dear me, now I’ll just need to re-write the whole post, my wheels are turnin’.

  6. Wow, that’s a hard question. I think, like Bethany, I tend to be a little of everything, depending on the situation. Most often, though, I’m probably a combo of character-first and question-first. That being said, the initial inspiration for my current WIP was storyworld-first. Once it started to fall into place,though, I’ve noticed that I tend to come up with interesting characters (at least characters that I like), and figure out their purpose after the fact. A few have ended up with more important roles than I originally expected when I created them. Ha! But when I find myself stuck trying to figure out the plot, I tend to ask a lot of questions to help myself think it through. I’ve never actually thought about what “kind” of author I am in this sense , though, so it was very thought-provoking and I enjoyed reading! Thanks!!

    • I’m glad this was thought-provoking! And I don’t think you have to settle on one “type.” In the end, all authors are creating characters, worlds, plots, and asking questions. It’s just fun to take a look at which one comes first…if it’s ever just one. 😉

  7. My stories tend to come from all of these areas. Admittedly, my favorites tend to be the question-first (because they are usually a rather deep question ex: If there were other gods, what would still make my God greater, based on the verse speaking of him as the God of gods.)

    Usually, I come up with either a character or a world and then try to find a what-if to drive the plot. I can only think of one story that I have done that was plot first.

  8. I tend to be a blend of character-first and storyworld-first type of author. Though sometimes if I get stuck I might start asking questions and one of them will prompt the writing to fall into place 🙂

    Great post! Thanks for sharing!

  9. I’m some combination of plot-first and character-first. (For me, the two tend to be inseparable).

  10. Hmm. Very interesting. I’ve always identified as a plot-first writer. Characters are always much more of a struggle for me to birth than plots. I think the project I’m working on now was born plot-first.
    However, my novel manuscript, which I’m editing, was definitely born question-first

    I’m probably a blend of those two.

  11. I’m definitly a character-first novelist! I’m forever coming up with a character and his or her background, future, goals. . .and then I have to decide, “Do you belong in a fantasy world, or something more sci-fi?” And finally there’s the tricky part of creating a cool, complicated plot to spur my character into action.
    Really cool post – thanks for sharing 🙂

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  13. Hm… Actually, no. The third one, the storyworld-first, seems to be a subcategory of a plot-first category. And your forth ‘What if everyone had a Clock showing them how long they had to live?’ is nothing but storyworld-first category, still. You see, you created a WORLD where clocks showing how long people would live. Every plot starts with a question, “What if…”. It doesn’t mean that’s a whole different category of writers. No offend, just my opinion.

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