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I often find myself coming up with seemingly compelling premises and world settings, but unable to come up with equally compelling character or plot.

For example, I am currently thinking about a premise where a desert empire's emperor becomes obsessed with building a tower, and mobilizing the entire empire in a grueling construction project that seem to never finish, because no matter how tall the tower reached, the emperor simply demanded taller. The story is supposed to begin after this obsession had seized the emperor for decades, and the endlessly ambitious task had fundamentally transformed the empire itself into a ceaseless engine of conquest and industry. The main character, whoever that be, is supposed to infiltrate the empire's ranks, perhaps seeking vengeance against the emperor's cruel conquests, or perhaps simply curious about the reason behind the emperor's obsession, whatever the case, the main character will eventually form some idea about the truth of the matter.

All that being said, I have little clue what the specific character or storyline should be, and have no clue where to start either. I want to know if there is any procedure that other writers use to conceive plot and character based on setting and themes.

5

It's OK to start with characters who are not yet fully fleshed out, because characters tend to develop as you write. one thing to keep in mind is that your characters should have goals at the outset (your emperor already does.). They should take actions toward those goals (sounds like your emperor will), and they should encounter antagonizing forces that keep them from their goals (your main character may be the emperor's antagonist.). As you go, if you got some of the characters 'wrong,' don't worry. It's OK to fold characters together, and to add in new characters after you've written a chunk of your story, and to change characters as needed.

It's also OK to use a stock plot based on a tried-and-true story structure, such as the three act structure. Act One: Introduce setting and character with goal. Then, inciting incident, call to action, answer the call. Act Two: character growth, difficulty achieving goal, goals might change, there's often a deep night of the soul, more 'try-fail' cycles. Growth. Act Three: Final confrontation and/or attempt, climax, resolution.

Finally, it's OK to revise a first draft if it doesn't end up working as well as you hope.

ANSWER: Just start writing, and allow the first draft to be very bad. Imagine you have a lump of clay and you want to mold it into a beautiful vase. Start shaping it. You have the luxury of being able to reshape and modify and pull bits off and add them on elsewhere and so on as you go. For your characters, simply use what your instinct tells you--gender, age, characteristics. You'll probably be happiest with your results if they have a definitive GOAL. Allow the depth and complexity of your character to develop over time and adjust the clay to fit. Plot--I suggest reading up on the three act structure (or some other story structure) and molding your lump of clay to it. You can also use the fifteen story beats popularized by Blake Snyder.

4

You have a world with a Problem. That's your setting. Why does the Problem matter to the character? How does it affect him? Your character must interact with the Problem - that's what the story is. It follows that the more intimately the character is familiar with the Problem, the more he is affected by it - the more of a stake he would have in the story, the more he would care about interacting with the situation.

The character having a stake means the readers too have a stake. We care about people we can empathise with, not about theoretical situations. "A million is a statistic." It is through the experience of a character that you show the reader a situation needs changing.

It follows that you create your character to be the person who would take the reader on a journey through the problem, show it to us, let us experience it. Depending on the story you wish to tell, he might succeed or fail in taking action to change it.

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As Galastel says (+1), your character needs to be involved and want something connected to the problem.

If the empire has become an engine of conquest, perhaps your character is in danger of being conquered, or in the process of being conquered, or has been conquered, and their resources stolen. But you should write this as personal: The character may be a parent that has lost a child to slavery, and intends to get her/him back. Or wants revenge for the death of a spouse or child or whole family. Or the conqueror's rape of a spouse or daughter. Or wants to take back the stuff that was stolen from him, or all three.

The MC needs a good reason to risk her life to infiltrate the Emperor's machine instead of just running away from it, and the only truly plausible reason is going to be a deeply emotional one. e.g. Saving Nemo is about a parent risking his life to save his child. It is written as a children's comical story, but it is a plot with serious resonance for adults with children.

A good story begins in the main character's "Normal World", and that is usually easy to start. It is 10% to 15% of the full length. Also the first half of Act I, usually about 25% of the whole story. This connects the reader to the MC, shows them solving everyday little problems, shows us the setting and time period, and shows us the stakes: Who the MC loves. Halfway through the first Act, we have an "inciting incident", the first hint of what will become a life-changing event. In the second half, the MC tries to deal with the inciting incident; first as a nuisance problem, but it gets increasingly worse (escalates) until, by the end of Act I, the MC is forced to LEAVE their "Normal World" and work on the problem full time.

In your story, I'd make that inciting incident the appearance of the Emperor's men, perhaps demanding taxes or tribute, and the escalation is increasing demands and violence until something horrific happens: A kidnapping, a murder, a seizing of ALL their property, or taking of the children as slaves.

THEN your MC has to abandon the world they knew, and really DO something about this crap. The adventure begins.

2

Personally, I prefer to build characters, put them in the setting, and let the plot happen on its own. There are already some really good ideas about how to build plot, so I'll try to talk about character.

First, who is your character with reference to the rest of the story? You could call this motive - why do they do what they do? Does their motive make more sense for someone who's rich and upper-class, or someone who's a peasant/worker/labourer? Someone who's from the kingdom or not?

Then we get to the more basic qualities - gender (or not), sexuality, race/ethnicity, looks, etc. Who do you picture when you think about this character? If I were to write about a desert setting, I'd look up some groups of people indigenous to deserts irl and try to build looks similar to those.

Then you get to build the norms, which you might enjoy because it seems like you'd enjoy worldbuilding. Is the character normal? What, if anything, is different about them? Their hair, skin, gender, interests? You can do this either way - either build the world first and then think about what differences you'd like your character to have, or build the character and then see if you want them to be different or not.

For example, I write a lot of non-straight characters. When I come up with them, along with their powers and traits, I think 'oh, this one's bi'. Then I decide that I don't want it to be a big deal, so I write the world to have little to no homophobia.

So does your character face social challenges beyond whatever the actual plot is?

You also have to come up with the actual personality of the character, and I tend to base this on what I'm good at. Are you funny? Then it'll be easy to make your MC funny. Smart? You could probably write a genius well. You can use existing fictional characters as starter templates, but you have to change it enough that they're unrecognizable. For example, the Luke Skywalker template - Chosen One, not really snarky, kind hearted, instinctive with a particular skill, merciful, etc etc

One creative writing professor told me that characters are our imaginary friends - maybe that helps you.

I suppose you could also go to TVTropes and pick a bunch of tropes and build a character around them, but I'd strongly advise against it for important characters. You can also base characters on real-life people, but again, not really a good idea. When the time comes for you to kill off the character based on your mom it's going to suck. And, of course, having a protagonist based on yourself is heavily and almost universally criticized (unless you're a guy, in which case you might be able to get away with it).

And remember, there's no shame in letting creations be shelved. Did you come up with a perfect character - for another story? Put them away, or put this particular setting away, and keep trying!

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Here is the story you want to tell:

The main character, whoever that [may] be, is supposed to infiltrate the empire's ranks, perhaps seeking vengeance against the emperor's cruel conquests, or perhaps simply curious about the reason behind the emperor's obsession, whatever the case, the main character will eventually form some idea about the truth of the matter.

There you have the rough outline of a character (someone who infiltrates the empire's ranks) and a storyline (that person infiltrates the ranks to find out the true reasons for the building and then do something with the information).

What you lack is a reason for your protagonist to infiltrate the empire. Given the genre you write in, some common tropes are available. The infiltrator could

  • be sent by an opposing empire who want to overcome this empire
  • be sent by rebels who are threatened by the empire because it uses up their resources (slaves, natural goods) in the building process
  • want to free a loved one
  • want to overthrow the emperor (who is the infiltrators relative or an usurper) and become the (rightful) emperor him- or herself
  • and so on and so forth

If you don't know how to choose among these conventional plots or want to invent your own, simply ask yourself:

  • What interests you? What is important to you in your life? What drives you?
  • What kind of characters, goals, etc. do you love to read about?
  • Who would you like to be? Who don't you want to be anymore?

Derive the kind of character and his or her goals from that. Then take a walk (or many walks over the course of many days) and let your imagination run free. Take a notebook with you and note down all ideas you have. Evaluate them later.

This is the most fun part of the whole writing process. Enjoy it, and don't abbreviate it by asking others for ideas.

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