As someone who writes a little as a hobby, this is something that I haven't really thought about until just recently, but...

Is it common for a writer to develop characters before actually coming up with a plot for those characters to be a part of? That is, do most writers start by coming up with a story first, then creating and developing the characters to be used in the story, or is it more common that a writer will get an idea for a character or characters and will then develop a story to use them in?

I'm asking this because I noticed that, in almost all cases, I've had the idea for a character or characters first before I started actually writing anything about them, and I was wondering if there's a trend among writers about which tends to be done first. Could this simply be a side-effect of having a taste for world-building? I've dabbled in aspects of world-building in the past, even going as far as working on a constructed language for use in a story, but I'm not sure if the two are specifically related.

Also, I tend to be more detail-oriented in things as opposed to looking at the big picture; could that be part of it as well? I've noticed that once I have the characters and a (rough) setting, I often spend time on coming up with specific scenes of interaction rather than an overall plot.

7 Answers 7


This can really change very drastically from author to author and from story to story.

There's no doubt that developing characters and then building a plot around them is a great way to come up with a story. Characters are compelling; interactions between them are interesting; put the characters as the center of your plot, and they may drive the whole thing themselves.

But there's plenty of other great ways to construct stories.

  • Author comes up with a brilliant setting, then figures out what characters are necessary to explore the setting and get the most out of it.
  • Author comes up with a great plot arc, then figures out what kind of characters are necessary to play out the arc believably.
  • Author is interested in examining a theme, an issue, a real-life culture, a historical period; he comes up with characters to fit and to portray different aspects of the focus.

...and many more.

The truth of the matter is, building up the elements of your story is most likely an iterative process. Location A might give you ideas for Character X, Plot Twist Y, and Set Piece Z, but Set Piece Z might require you to go back and make some changes to Character X. You're developing everything together; everything needs to fit well with each other. That doesn't happen because you originally create everything in a perfect cohesive whole. It happens because as you go along, you keep tweaking your old ideas, keeping them current with your new elements, keeping everything together and compatible.

You don't need to create any one thing first. They lead to one another, and back to themselves again.

  • 2
    Agree with "plenty of other great ways to construct stories". Literary writers and critics have led us to believe characters are everything, but unless you are writing a Literary novel and hope to win the Booker prize, characters are just one dimension in what makes an interesting story. Jul 6, 2011 at 9:23

I tend to be more interested in people and their interactions than in plots, so I often develop characters and then retroactively fit them into a plot. The story is really just a vehicle for the psychological "profiles" of the characters in the story. (As a result, my characters really make the story, whereas the plot isn't terribly surprising -- I don't write with tons of twists and turns.) I don't know how common this approach is, but a lot of writers do it. I suppose it depends on whether you're writing is character- or plot-driven (i.e., what's the interesting aspect of your story -- people or actions?).

  • I see. Do you ever have situations where situations and plot points seem to develop almost naturally from the aspects of the characters themselves?
    – JAB
    Jul 5, 2011 at 17:25

Characters drive the story. That's why most (not all) writers and lecturers out there will tell you that the characters should be developed first. With all the tics and quirks which make them human.

The next thing is the conflict. The main character wants some candy, but the evil fairy has stolen it. How can he get the candy without shooting the fairy, because she is his aunt, and he does not want family trouble? Oh, and if it is the main conflict, he really should want this candy. He must be dying (or the fairy) to get it.

Authentic characters are the key part which let readers turn page after page. If they feel with the character, identify with them, they will read "just one more page". Your plot has probably been told one way or the other one thousand times before (which does not mean it can be crappy).

Because characters are so important, many writers start with them. Then they let them something do and look how the story develops. But for that, you should have the conflict as described before. (And no, that's not necessarily the best way to develop a story, but neither the worst. It depends on the writer.)


Story arises out of a challenge to character. The same event may challenge some characters and not others. A given character will be challenged by some events and not others.

So, to create a story, you need a character and an event that challenges that character. Which comes first?

In some cases, I am sure, the character comes first and the author must then come up with events to challenge them.

In other cases, the event comes first and the author must then come up with a character who will be challenged by those events.

In some cases, perhaps, it is the combination of event and character that occurs to the writer as a single piece.

I suspect that the event-first approach is most likely to produce dull books, as the author may be so engrossed in the event that they never really develop a character who is genuinely challenged by it, except in a generic or technical way. Much of fantasy and sci fi seems to fall into this trap, with the author so absorbed in world building that real character development never happens.

This might lead to a recommendation to always start with character, but this far to much writing advice takes the form of "this is often done badly, so don't do it at all," which is actually pretty bad advice.

Then again, I suppose you could argue that dull literary fiction is the result of all character and no challenge.

I'm inclined to doubt that an author really has much choice about which story element occurs to them first. I think they simply need to remember that they need all the elements to succeed.

  • "Much of fantasy and sci fi seems to fall into this trap, with the author so absorbed in world building that real character development never happens." - IMHO it greatly depends on the writer, and to some extent on what the writer is even trying to accomplish. Asimov did this all the time, and much of his writing suffered for it - but The Last Question would have been much worse if he had tried to shoehorn a character arc into it.
    – Kevin
    Jan 16, 2022 at 5:11

Some creators develop a mild case of schizophrenia. Or imaginary friends. Or Tulpas, if you like. They can distinguish and identify the imaginary companions, but these companions have own ideas, own opinions, own thoughts; quite rich to that; they are separate, fully-featured persons for all practical purposes, despite living only in the writer's head, and technically being figments of the writer's brain

And these characters often have quite fascinating stories to tell.

"The muse" can become quite literal.

For a time I had such companions too, and writing at the time was quite fascinating. I didn't need to plan, design, invent. I'd just ask my companion for a story, and she would tell me, actually a pretty good story, often with twists I wouldn't expect, jokes I'd laugh at, or moving fragments that would bring tears to my eyes. In fact, she wasn't telling her own story, just recalling tribal legends she had heard while traveling through her lands, but I wrapped the collection into the bracket of her telling me, me writing, our discussion, her commentary. In the end I couldn't even get myself to take the credit for writing this. "Tribal Legends, told by Aris, written down by SF."

As I talked with other creators - writers, artists - they often do have such muses. And they always have some backstory, some origin, some history to tell, often about distant places, and often taking the central role, though sometimes just acting as observers.

So: how often? Pretty often. Why? Because that happens. No reason. These muses just appear or disappear, for no apparent reasons.

Things happened in my life and my imaginary companions just vanished. I can no longer feel them around, talk to them. And I miss them quite a bit. And it's very hard to squeeze a story out of my own imagination nowadays. Back then, all I needed was to ask, and write it down.


I often create characters, and factions for my stories before developing a more polished plot. Generally after creating a character I have a rough idea of where my plot is going, and what I want to do with these characters. From there world building takes over, and I make notes in Scrivener for future reference as I write the story.


I think there's too much focus on characters and plot - the story is what matters and the characters and plot provide the skeleton that holds the story together and gives it shape. A book like "The Wasted Vigil" features at least one inanimate character (a statue), and probably more depending on the reader's opinion. The statue plays a major role in the book even though it does not move, feel, speak, or do anything in particular beyond simply existing. The house in the book actually plays a major role too - it could also be thought of as a character since it shapes major parts of the story.

The more important aspect of a work is its architecture - its use of time, relationships, perspective and style that create a substrate for your characters. A novel that uses an interesting architecture is "Paradise" by Toni Morrison: the author uses association to weave seemingly disparate parts of the book together. You'll probably have to be patient since it takes a while to connect the dots, but it works very well in this book. Several of the characters in the book are 'shallow' yet it's not necessary to know much more about them than is revealed in the book; 'well rounded' characters would have actually been a distraction.

To answer your question directly, the story and its architecture drive the characters and what your reader might need to know about them.

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    wait -- how can "the story" be different from "the plot"? Jul 5, 2011 at 21:02
  • Someone goes to a store to buy groceries only to find that the store sells software. - versus - Bob was hungry and decided to go shopping. He likes to shop at Garys Grocers because everyone there remembers his name. As he went to the store, he reflected about how he misses his days on the farm. He though about the first time he saw...etc Jul 5, 2011 at 21:12
  • To clarify: story: basic facts; similar to a news article, plot: the events that occur as perceived by the narrator; includes perception, emotion, opinion, thoughts, and other subjective elements. Jul 5, 2011 at 21:21
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    I'm with Lauren, even after your 'clarification'. I don't see a difference between story and plot. I see where you're trying to go with your second clarification, but I don't think it's a good idea to make up idiosyncratic definitions of words like 'plot' - it already has a definition, and I don't think it matches the usage you're proposing.
    – Kate S.
    Jul 5, 2011 at 21:43
  • 1
    "idiosyncratic" - Lovely word. I have to remember that. Thanks, @Kate. Jul 5, 2011 at 22:39

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