Do you come up with characters first or story first?

More from the Webcomic Wonderland Goodreads Q&A I did yesterday:

Ida wrote: “Hi Alex!
I love both Artifice and The Young Protectors. Not just for the (admittedly awesome) settings, but for the characters, which I feel are argueably the most important parts of any work of fiction. I would like to ask you about your characters: Do you come up with the characters first or the story first? and Are there any particular considerations you have when developing characters, such as avoiding stereotypes, etc.? ”

You know, it’s funny. In general, I think of myself as a plot guy. What matters most to me is the ending and how we get there. But the truth is, almost always, I do start with the characters first.

As I mentioned above, my stories begin with daydreams, (often created as I dance around my office listening to music, but that’s a whole ‘nother story–and an image which would frighten small children.)

I’ll watch some sci-fi show on TV that had some dramatic scene that was either excellent (so it’s got me jazzed) or it’s awful (so it’s got me thinking how it could be done better) and soon I’m inserting my own characters into it, interacting with the leads. (This is one of the reasons I don’t write fan fiction; I’d always want to make my own characters the stars.)

If the idea really has legs, soon the OCs from the show I watch sort of drop away and get replaced by other characters of my own making. And what I mean by “having legs”, brings me to an answer to your question.

The biggest question I ask myself is: does this character have a strong motivation that would compel them into action and would compel other people to care?

“Wanting to write a film script” might be a strong motivator for folks, but for audiences, it’s a big “Who cares?”

But “Wanting to free yourself from the clutches of an evil corporation to find dignity and love”? Might be something there.

So, that’s the first step for me in writing anything. And then the second step is “Is there another character with an equally compelling motivation whose goals are in conflict with the protagonist?” I need both before I can begin. And by compelling, that motivation has to be understandable, even if we don’t share it. Something like “Rising up in the corporate ranks and proving humans are still superior to inevitable domination of machines”, perhaps?

So, you can see that I start with characters, but it’s in the search for compelling, believable, strong motivations where I put my writing energies (instead of, say, filling out stat sheets with age, school, etc. info which I know is popular with some writers.)

Read more answers over at the Webcomic Wonderland thread.


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