Character displacement occurs when competition for either resources or successful reproduction imposes divergent selection on interacting species, causing divergence in traits associated with resource use or reproduction. Here, we describe how character displacement can be mediated either by genetically canalized changes (i.e., changes that reflect allelic or genotype frequency changes) or by phenotypic plasticity. We also discuss how these two mechanisms influence the tempo of character displacement. Specifically, we suggest that, under some conditions, character displacement mediated by phenotypic plasticity might occur more rapidly than that mediated by genetically canalized changes. Finally, we describe how these two mechanisms may act together and determine character displacement's mode, such that it proceeds through an initial phase in which trait divergence is environmentally induced to a later phase in which divergence becomes genetically canalized. This plasticity-first hypothesis predicts that character displacement should be generally mediated by ancestral plasticity and that it will arise similarly in multiple, independently evolving populations. We conclude by highlighting future directions for research that would test these predictions.