Naturally, since I’m a writer and you’re here reading my writings about writing, I think it makes sense to provide you with a little peek into my approach. Right?
This will sound absolutely insane but here we go:
I create a world, put characters in it, and watch things unfold.
In case you weren’t sure, I was being sarcastic about the “sound insane” thing.
In all honesty, though, I think this approach is far less common than it should be. It’s incredibly easy as a writer—especially in the brainstorming stage of a creative project—to get wrapped up in an idea. Often, that idea is the kernel of the plot: tormented man fights giant whale, family gets trapped on an island and must learn to survive, halfling destroys incredibly powerful ring of doom, etc. Inevitably, finding this idea gets the writer excited, and they launch into drafting or taking notes, shaping characters and details around it.
None of that is inherently bad or wrong. The problem is when the plot becomes an absolute ruler to which all other facets of the writing—world, characters, contrivances, outcomes—must bow. The stories that come out of this approach often “work.” They make more or less sense, move from point to point effectively, and achieve whatever end state they had in mind to some effect.
The issue is that they aren’t believable. Your life isn’t driven by a plot. You, a real person with history and experiences guiding you, make decisions based on the stimuli generated by the world and other people around you. Stories arise out of this all the time, definitely. But at no point does your world abruptly stop and shift to serve a plot point. The world inside a good story shouldn’t either.
More than almost anything else, plot-focused writing will knock me out of fully enjoying a movie, TV show, book, or video game. I do have a tolerance for it if I’m having enough fun with whatever’s happening, but I will question mystifying character actions later.
All of that said, when I approach writing a story of any kind, about anything, I start with that same kernel of an idea that anyone does, but then I build around that a full world with rules and fundamental laws. I mean things like gravity, physics, average familial relation; not “don’t steal” or something of that sort.
From there, I develop characters that live within that world and obey the laws and rules I’ve set out. Often those two types of development mesh, with each inspiring the other. At the end of the process, though, my goal is to have a world full of stimuli that drive and motivate characters as actors within whatever they face.
Once I’ve moved beyond brainstorming and into full drafting, I sit down at the computer (or at the location in which I can notebook successfully) and pick up the characters wherever they are in their lives and document them as they move forward. Inevitably, this can lead to very unexpected developments in my stories, where the plot takes a turn I—as the author!—didn’t expect.
And that’s just fun for me. I think it’s fun for readers, too.
As Ernest Hemingway so wonderfully said: “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”