As far as writers know, there has never been a definitive answer as to a structure in which to develop a story. Some authors begin with themes, some with plots. Others focus on the world they intend to develop, and still others begin with characters. Despite there being no right way to begin a story, authors usually have a very good reason why they begin where they do. As an author who chooses to focus on character development before other plot aspects, I can give my reasoning and guidance as to why I start my stories where I do.
Characters, to me, are the infrastructure of a story, the pieces around which a good plot line is built. They provide the heart of a story, and I find that once the character begins to take on a life and personality of their own, they shape their own story. The act of bringing characters to life is paramount to me in the writing process. People have a tendency to change, and in turn, impact the world, and others around them. Characters are only different in the aspect that their lives depend on the writer to take off. When I develop a story in this way, the process feels very natural, and it is easier to maintain a feeling of authenticity that can too-easily become lost in the clutter of building a story.
People have a tendency to change, and in turn, impact the world, and others around them. Characters are only different in the aspect that their lives depend on the writer to take off.
Sometimes it is difficult to begin a new story even when I feel I have a handle of who I want a character to be, because they do not have a definitive conflict. This is where other aspects of basic story building can come in handy. My go-to next step is theme, and the changes which might occur throughout a plot. For example, in a recent story I was writing, I had the basis for a good character, but I did not know where to go next. I began to examine what I believed I wanted to say, or what I wanted my readers to walk away from my work with and took another look at my character. I asked myself, what are their stakes in this issue? And somewhat more importantly, how will those feelings change throughout the story? After that, things began to fall into place.
People are nuanced, and for a character to be successful, they must also be. Otherwise, the audience will struggle to empathize with them, and the story can become stilted. However, when a story is developed on the basis of genuine human emotions, feelings and motives that readers can understand and care about, the story becomes much more well-rounded. It feels as if the world is developing naturally, being pulled and pushed by the motivations and actions of the people who inhabit it, rather than unnaturally being influenced in order to achieve a desired outcome by the author. Such a feeling being present can change a story entirely, taking it from something confusing and turning it smooth. Authors sometimes run into blocks in their story when they have their characters backed into a corner, with no real idea of how to free them from the situation. Many times, I have seen this happen, and how easy it becomes to allow your character to make a choice they normally would not, simply to overcome the problem at hand. When this occurs, it creates a feeling of irregularity, and the story ceases to be authentic.
It feels as if the world is developing naturally, being pulled and pushed by the motivations and actions of the people who inhabit it, rather than unnaturally being influenced in order to achieve a desired outcome by the author.
It is a dangerous trap, but in my personal experience, I have found that developing a character early on, if not first, in the writing process solves this issue. Forming a story around a character, rather than the other way around, allows the author to go into the process knowing what is expected of their character, and how they can best achieve it while remaining true to who the character is.