I'm starting a new fantasy story, and although I had a loose idea of plot, I began sculpting my characters before writing anything. Creating images of them in my head, developing their personalities, mapping out their interpersonal relationships, and, my personal favorite, searching for people on Google images who look exactly like the person in my head, are all essential parts of how I develop my characters.

However, I'm having a bit of trouble getting started in the actual writing, and I'm wondering if that's because I chose to develop my characters before my storyline, and, as consequence, I am molding my plot to fit my characters, not vice versa.

What I'm asking is, is crafting characters before plot a bad choice? Which one is usually created first, and which one is most objectively better to start with?

  • 2
    What should come first: Chickens or eggs?
    – EvilSnack
    Aug 25, 2019 at 1:47
  • 6
    Tolkien created a universe, mythology, and ~6000 years of history just to have some characters and a place for them to stand because he wanted an excuse to use Quenya, the elf language he invented. As long as you have characters and plot, it doesn't matter which comes first. Aug 25, 2019 at 10:47
  • Characters and plot both come after actually having something to say - as opposed to telling pointless anecdotes about strange people in strange circumstances. If you are after pointless anecdotes (as most modern writers seem to be) then it doesn't matter. You've got nothing to say, so say it in as many words in any order you feel like. It won't matter.
    – JRE
    Aug 26, 2019 at 9:34

9 Answers 9


There is no "objectively" better place to start, because you are not every other writer (or even any other writer). It's objectively better to end with a strong plot AND strong characters, but how you get there is your own journey. If this method didn't work for you, try starting with the plot first next time, and seeing what characters that suggests to you.

  • Yes. And the method that worked for you for one work won't necessarily work for another.
    – Cyn
    Aug 26, 2019 at 20:41

I believe you start with both of them together.

A young warrior overthrows an oppressive regime.

A fae outcast learns new magic to build the world anew.

A criminal drug addict seeks redemption by turning his life to saving others.

^^ If you can identify a character goal and what your characters will do to reach it, then start writing in the 'normal world' of your character with an idea of the inciting incident you are writing toward, you will be on your way.


I always start with characters.

For me, as a discovery writer, characters drive the story, when I'm looking for a new idea, I look for a new MC, until one grabs me. Then I think about that MC obsessively for about a week, not writing anything down, just thinking about her (usually a her).

Specifically I think about her normal life, what she does for a living (her profession or normal life is usually the first thing I decide), what her special talent X is, what her special weakness Y is, and finally, what her problem is going to be.

Her problem needs to be something that does not seem soluble with her special talent X, and demands the talent that she doesn't have, i.e. her problem attacks her special weakness Y (whatever she is worse at than most people).

That's not a plot, I don't know the twists and turns, or the betrayals, or the surprises. I'll devise those later, as I need them. But I DO devise a likely ending that will have my MC overcome her weakness, and at least partially rely on her special talent. So there is going to be a twist, at first it doesn't look like she can use talent X, but eventually situations arise in which X is useful after all, it does provide advances in the story line. But she still does not succeed until the middle of the third act, and the solution is 100% dependent on overcoming weakness Y, not on X at all. X can come into play before that, or after that, but is not the Key to victory.

Imagine her strength X is a magical ability, and her weakness Y is gullibility. In order to finally succeed, she has to overcome gullibility -- realize someone has lied, and betrayed her, and she is in the middle of a trap that will cost her everything.

Her magic doesn't help her realize this, she has learned something through her experiences in the story, and somehow (I would guess by analogies to those experiences) she realizes there is a trap that would kill her, just in time to escape it, or turn it on the villain. The realization is the key, the villain is relying on her gullibility, but after the realization and certainty, she can rain magic on her enemies like lightning bolts.

That's as much as I "plot". I begin the book (see links below), and have my characters interact as they will. Because I know Story Structure, I know where they have to go and be at each point of the story, what kind of writing is needed as we progress through the pages, when we need complications and disagreements and conflicts, when we need agreement. I know she has to learn these lessons, for one, usually by failing. She has a weakness! It keeps getting punched! She fails to learn, again and again, with some successes to keep her from giving up. But whatever the stakes are keep her from giving up too, something (or someone) she loves is on the bubble if she fails completely, so she has to keep getting back up every time she gets knocked down.

You need a character with a weakness, and a problem, with at least one plausible solution you can work toward. (If, while I am writing, I think of a better or more surprising solution, I switch to it, and revise what I have written, as needed. I have changed the ending four times while writing a novel, just because I realized better endings I could make work.)

I suggest these earlier answers of mine, they might help you too:

The Psychology of Starting a Piece of Writing.

Do I Need to Start Off My Book By Describing The Character's Normal World.


In terms of the story, it should not matter.

You might start with characters that you want to write about. And then figure out a plot to causes these characters to interact with each other. And then the requirements of the plot cause changes to the characters. And so on, and so on.

You might start with the plot and only later after the flow of the plot is in place, do you populate the plot with characters. But these characters must have some quirks to make the whole thing interesting, and those quirks modify the plot. And so on, and so on.

The only real questions are what works for the reader, and what do you as the writer have to do to give the reader a satisfying experience. I suspect that most writers poke at the story from multiple viewpoints: characters, settings, timelines, themes, scene and story structures, senses, culture, politics, and so on. You as the the writer of your stories might not care for some of these topics; you might not even bother to address the economics of a society. Every writer has to decide what to put in and what to leave out.

For your particular situation, try this. For each character, write down what they want (or at least should have to be less miserable than they are at the start of the story) as well as two or three credible obstacles to achieving that state of affairs. Look at ways that two or more characters might cooperate to achieve their goals. Ditto points of competition. Write a scene in which some subset of your characters are thrown together. Do not be gentle with them: strip them naked, flay the skin from their backs, but let them find a way out of the mess that you have handled them. Repeat with a bigger mess.

Some of what you write will be crap, maybe most of it. So be it. The value of written crap exceeds the value of unwritten excellence every time. Written crap can be fixed. Even if it cannot be transformed into something readable, you will still learn things about the world that you are creating.


When reading answers to questions like this we should always keep in mind an annoying truth about writing: What works for one will not work for all. Even what works for many will still not work for all. So sadly saying "what objectively works better" is a fool's errand, as the answers are highly subjective.

A solid foundation for projects in general tends to be to start with a core goal, and then begin working towards that goal by breaking the core goal into milestone goals, and re-evaluations of your core goal. Framing things around goals and evaluation [and expected rewriting] allows us to free ourselves from early decision paralysis so that we can begin a flow of steady useful work.

Initially the core goal of a project may be as vague as "I want to write a book", or "I want to build a house", but neither of those goals remains all that useful of an idea if you want to get any actual work done. It gives you nothing to actually go on, there are no details, and we aren't really left with anything to expand off of.

So we invoke the "re-evaluate the core goal", and start better defining it. What kind of book/house do we want? Ask ourselves: What kind of project are we able to tackle? Much like setting out to build a massive skyscraper as our first building project if we've never built so much as a shed, trying to set of writing something to dwarf The Wheel of Time as your first serious writing project is unlikely to be a 'great idea' if we want to finish a project of any reasonable quality. [Not that I totally set off to do just that as a teenager or anything... Nothing stops anyone from trying to start there, and if it is really what someone wants to begin with, even after being warned, then more power to them I guess?]

If we keep running re-evaluate cycles over our core goal, and breaking that out into sub-goals and milestones then we eventually end up at a point where we have focused things down to a point where we can begin writing either supporting documentation or actual content.

Core goal: "I want to write a book" - Too vague.

Re-evaluate: "I want to write a fantasy book" - More defined, but still vague.

Re-evaluate: "I want to write a fantasy book about [concept]" - Better, and we have something we can start splitting out into sub goals.

Sub-goal: "Define/explore [concept]" - We can begin brainstorming while making as few or as many detailed notes as needed. Always looking for new sub-goals/milestones, or points to re-evaluate.

A key point to keep in mind here is to apply this approach in as detailed or flexible way as what works for you. Maybe you run through several cycles of this in your mind while eating breakfast and start writing directly, or maybe you keep detailed journals with links to spreadsheets and mountains of research, plot or dialog fragments, or whatever. [I've written complex model simulation software for sci-fi projects just to help see if a space station setting idea I had actually made sense.]

Focus on what you need, and don't worry too much about what did or didn't work for other writers. Other writer's experiences are useful to consider, but are not laws to follow.

Keep in mind that unlike building physical things writing offers us the flexibility of reuse and reworking of previous efforts to improve on things. If we haven't built something solid enough to use as a foundation before we start putting up a house, then we are at great risk of having to rip everything down [assuming it hasn't fallen down on its own] and begin again from scratch.

But in writing we have the potential to pick some aspect of the project that we truly love and focus our attention there for as long as it pleases us. We can spend as long as we like making 'the perfect kitchen', down to all the finishing details, if we really want, and only then proceed to decide how to build a house around it. [Just be wary of growing 'too attached' to things before you're sure they can work as part of a larger whole. Drill down deep into a single thing if it works for you, but keep in mind it may require major changes or be difficult to fit into a larger scope later on.]

So 'start' with detailed plot overviews, or 'start' with detailed character overviews, or even just 'start' with an especially witty sounding bit of dialog. - Start with something, evaluate things, decide whether it works or not, and expand from there as needed.

Also keep in mind that writing projects typically aren't actually done in stone, and therefore are not immutable... The "Grand high fantasy adventure" I started writing as a teen has been abandoned at least three times, completely reworked from the ground up into a far more mature low fantasy project [aka, I read A Song of Ice and Fire...], directly influenced at least four mobile games, and had a clear impact on half a dozen different books and shorter series that have been finished and published.

In short, work on writing, and stay flexible. Both life and writing can take you to rather unexpected places.


A respected creative writing professor of mine always says that plot is character. Repetitive or stale plots can be saved by interesting, original characters. Boring characters can't be redeemed by an interesting plot.

Is crafting characters before plot a bad choice?

No, not at all

which one is most objectively better to start with?

I don't think there can be any objective answers in writing - if it works for you then it works for you. It's why you'll find that a lot of 'writing advice' from famous authors is contradictory.

Your plot should be character driven. Having a different MC should change what happens in your story (i.e they shouldn't be replaceable). Your MC has specific traits that take them wherever they will after the inciting incident.

Take the example of Harry Potter. Once the stage is set and Harry is in school, what's the inciting incident for book one? When do our protagonists start breaking away from the status quo (studying, learning about the world, etc)? When Harry thinks that Snape is trying to steal the Stone. If Hermione was the MC, the one who saw that, she wouldn't have jumped to that conclusion. If it was Ron, he wouldn't have thought to go talk to Hagrid about it.

You say you have a loose idea of a plot. That's honestly great, imo. It means that you have a lot of wriggle room to let the characters develop on their own. Put them all in the inciting incident and see what happens, how they react to it.

One reason you might have trouble starting is if you're trying to write the beginning/introduction to the story. I think this is especially difficult with fantasy stories, where you have this amazing idea but you first need to set the stage and explain each and every one of your 12 fantasy clans so that the idea makes sense. Pretend like the world you're writing about is already well established, and start where the real story starts. Introductions can be added later.

I usually like to start with some character establishing scenes, even though they generally get cut or rearranged in later edits. It helps me understand who I'm writing about and what they're going to do when they get their Hogwarts Letter.'

Thanks @Amadeus : Here, I misuse the phrase 'inciting incident'. What I mean is the event that kickstarts the real plot of the story after the world is established for the audience.

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    I think you are misusing the term "inciting incident". This occurs in a story around the middle of Act I (10% to 15% through the story) it is near the end of the "normal life" for the MC, an unusual event that will eventually lead them out of their normal world. In Book 1 of HP, I have 384 pages, I'd expect II at 38 to 58. In fact, at p41, Ch 3, Harry gets the first letter of his life (a magical letter) and that is the "Inciting Incident", the harbinger of a major change coming. On P56, Hagrid arrives for him, There is no 2nd II "after things get under way". You are misusing terminology.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 25, 2019 at 10:29
  • (I should really come on here more often) You're absolutely right - I thought I'd come up with that phrase but it's a well established literary term.
    – tryin
    Sep 13, 2019 at 3:39

Characters and plot are deeply connected, and should be considered together so they can best feed off each other. For example, character decisions will create the plot in most stories; if you have a conflict in mind the characters need to have personalities that would actually have this conflict, and if you have characters that are going to have innately different beliefs, this should show up in plot somehow, even if they are allies.

Also, in most good works of fiction characters develop throughout the story - they shouldn't have the same personality and goals at the end as they did initially. Since you have characters but not a detailed plot it might be best to think of your current characters as starting points - don't get so attached to them that they can't change. In that way the end state characters and the plot are built together, as you work out how the cast could develop and what plot points would bring that about.

Think about what would need to happen to a character for them to make specific decisions: What would make them break and be prepared to give up? What would make them decide to help someone they previously hated? What would make them step up into a leadership role that they'd normally avoid? Interesting developments like this can be created organically by putting your characters in particular situations.

I'd argue that creating character and then plot (or vice versa) is not going to lead to the best possible story - when coming up with the plot you might realise an event would be much more dramatic if a character had a particular trait, and rewriting the character a bit would probably be a good decision. Try to interleave your plot and characters, switching between them and willing to tweak them both together until they converge, and reflect each other well. It probably doesn't matter which you start with, as long as you're reasonably flexible with them.


An old riddle asks, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Of course, after the Theory of Evolution, we know that eggs came before chickens, but that is not applicable to writing.

Which comes first, the plot or the characters?

In Rudyard Kipling's poem "In the Neolithic Age" he claimed: "there are nine and sixty ways of writing tribal lays. And every single one of them is right."

Some writers, especially in science fiction and fantasy, think of a setting first, and then create plots and characters suitable for the setting.

Some writers, especially in science fiction, think of an idea or concept first, and then create a plot and characters and setting around that idea of concept.

Some writers, especially in mystery stories, think of a basic plot, a mystery and its solution, first, and then create more plot, and characters, and setting, etc. based on the basic plot.

And some writers think of characters first, and then think of plots they could experience and/or cause.

Some writers have dreams, and then base stories on them, changing details to make the plots and settings and characters more realistic.

And in my experience, imagining plot and characters goes hand in hand. Every new plot detail helps determine the personalities of the character(s) involved. Every personality trait of a character makes them more or less probable to behave in various ways, thus predetermining their likely actions in various situations and thus predetermining various plot details.


Yes, there is an objectively better place to start, and that is with character. This is not to say that it is the only place to start. As long as you put all the bits together in the end, it doesn't matter how you got there. However, you stand to save yourself a lot of bother if you start with character.

Why? Because the function of plot is to force your characters into the place where they have to stand and face the climactic decision or action that defines the story.

Well, you might say, isn't that climactic decision of action simply the climax of the plot?

And yes it is, in a sense. But in a sense it isn't. Rather it is the moment that reveals, that finally pulls back all the layers, that strips all the masks, from character. To create a character, therefore, it to create the necessity of that moment as the crisis that defines that character. Character and crisis are made for one another.

In fact, it would be better to say that you start with character and crisis as a combination, not with character alone. But make no mistake: the crisis belongs to and defines a character. The exact same even might be inconsequential for a different character, or a different character might never be persuaded to face that moment of crisis at all. The character is made for the crisis, and the crisis for the character.

What is the plot for? Well, the character does not want to face the crisis. No one wants to face a crisis if they can avoid it. Crises are painful. Logically, the character will twist and turn to avoid coming to the crisis. The function of plot is to guide or force them along the path that make it impossible for them to avoid the crisis. Plot exists, in other words, to bring character to crisis.

If you try to design a plot first, you will essentially be trying to force a character you have not thought of into a crisis that can only be conceived of in terms of the character you have not thought of yet. At best, you are going to describe a sequence of events, a history, and then you are going to try to frog march a character through that sequence to the crisis. But that chances that you have created the right plot to bring that character to that crisis are slim, so your character is probably going to turn out quite inconsistent as you try to force them through the course you designed in advance without considering them.

So, character comes first. More specifically, character and crisis comen first, and then plot is devised to bring the character to their crisis.

However, there is a big caveat to this. In genre fiction, you deal with stock characters and you lead them to stock crises. You don't need to create the character or the crisis because you take them off the shelf. The genre provide all the variations you need. All you have to do is take those ingredients and wrap a new plot round them.

In the genre case, therefore, plot does come first, in terms of your workload, because the characters are off the shelf. However, you still need to understand your off-the-shelf characters and guide them compellingly to their off-the-shelf crisis. That still requires considerable craft, and you won't get there by creating an imaginary history without selecting and understanding the off-the-shelf components of your story provided by your genre. So in the end, character comes first.

If you start with plot, you may still get there in the end, but you will have to bend your plot to suit your characters once you do figure them out. Starting with character should reduce the pain.

Then again, you are not in charge of where your muse decides to begin, so if plot is what comes to your first, you may just have to lump it.

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