Everyone has their ways, I suppose. There are those who like to plot out every last their books and those who don’t. I fall very firmly in the latter camp. To me, books are about the characters. They drive everything and they can be awkward buggers at times; they won’t do what you expect.
Actually, that’s when the fun really begins, because they’ve taken on lives of their own. My father, a good writer himself, gave me one piece of advice that’s stayed in my head – if you create a living, breathing character, people will follow him anywhere. That’s what I try to do in my books. These people are alive, they’re not shoehorned in to fit circumstances. They live their lives and all I do is write down what happens to them.
Of course a book needs a plot. It needs conflict and drama. But above all it needs characters that are fully three-dimensional, who impose themselves on events, who have their fears and foibles, their certainties and hubris – in other words, who are human. What do you recall when you’ve read a book. In the vast majority of cases it won’t be how meticulously constructed the lot was (if it’s really that good you won’t even notice it), but the people.
When I begin a book I know the starting point and where it finishes. Everything in between is a mystery until it happens. Quite often I’ll sit down in the morning with no idea what’s going to come out. I’ll let the movie ply in my head and type what’s going on. Sometimes it runs very slow, sometimes I have to dash to keep up. Sometimes it’ll take me by surprise and lead me somewhere unexpected. But that’s the joy and frustration of writing a novel; at times it’s strangely reminiscent of herding cats.
I won’t say this works for all writers. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But putting plot ahead of characters seems like placing the horse in front of the cart to me. If you don’t have characters to breathe into your ideas and make them live, all you have is a storyboard.