How many times have you heard the following responses to "What's your book about?"
"It's Pulp Fiction meets Lethal Weapon...with penguins..."
"It's a high concept techno thriller with a dash of romantic suspense."
"It's about this guy...(This is where you zone out because no one should start their pitch with these four words)"
So how does an author begin a book? Do they start with a concept and develop characters along the way? Or does the idea stem from "this guy" and the plot forms from there? What comes first, the characters or the plot?
For me, it's been both. Thou Shall Not began with a group of people: ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel. I knew it was a world that most people didn't know much about and thought that many would be interested. While that was marinating, I read a newspaper article about a small scandal in New York where prevalent Rabbi's were caught soliciting prostitutes. This happens quite often, especially in Israel, but I knew that the story shocked most of America. Add some murders and a crime reporter who deviated from the community and came to Chicago and I had my first novel. However, with Street Walk, the character came first. Suzanne, a former prostitute who left the business after being attacked. Then I thought about how to make it worse. I made her pregnant when she was attacked and now she's living on Chicago's north shore raising her daughter. I had no idea what the plot would be, but the character intrigued me so much, that I let the plot stem from her.
I know many writers who start off with a genre, or a concept, and let the characters and plot form around that. Joesph Finder created the new sub-genre "Corporate Thrillers", thinking that since most people work in corporate America, they'd enjoy reading about it. Tess Gerritsen, after writing Romance novels, wanted to put her medical experience to use and write a medical thriller. It's hard for me to believe that writers such as Dan Brown or Michael Chrichton start developing their characters before thinking about plot.
Is one method better than the other? Of course not. Authors can't control where they get their ideas or what they think of first. But I do believe the final product is different. The aspect the author spends more time developing, will be the driving focus in the finished manuscript.
Take a book like Mystic River (okay, I know I'm a total Lehane-head, but the guy is brilliant.) What do you remember most about that book? The characters and the relationship between them. It's hard for me to believe that Lehane first developed the plot of that book before thinking about the characters. What about Jurassic Park? I don't think Chrichton first thought of a scientist and developed the character before even thinking about the concept.
Ideally, the final product would have both. Authors like Gayle Lynds and Lee Child manage to create both memorable characters and high-concepts. The important thing is that the story is compelling, whether it's the plot or the characters driving the story forward. We can't control what ideas come into our head, what thoughts preoccupy us until we put them down on paper. But even if you think of a plot idea or a concept first, it's important to create characters that are multi-faceted and will add to the story. Conversely, a book cannot ride on characters alone; you need a gripping story that will keep readers turning pages.