I’ve always looked at putting together a story in a fresh new world as starting with the world, getting enough of it together to give yourself ideas, then sticking characters in it, then letting them bounce off each other until you have something approximating a plot. Wasn’t that how all the people with the really cool political plots (squee!) did it? Didn’t you need a world first, just so you’d have something to get ideas from? And then I’d get stuck on the world, and the story wouldn’t write, and I couldn’t figure out why. Wasn’t I doing it in the right order? I mean, my inspiration is almost entirely character-based, but I still can’t generally come up with a good PC design unless I already know exactly how the world works so I can make them a proper part of it rather than spending all my time worrying about how the character was going to clash. To be fair, it’s been a while since I’ve written, and in the last one most of the characters I was coming up with were a combination of the genre du jour and “What do my mains need right now?”
Imagine my surprise when I heard that one of my all-time favorite authors, one who is very good at the nifty politics, doesn’t do that. That not only does she not do that, but all the complex politics and the nifty dynamics and the backstories that weren’t covered in one book or another were basically created to make sure the characters were what she wanted them to be.
So the next time I got an idea (“These two character archetypes. A fantasy of manners. World inspired by a weird picture I drew that was at one point influenced by a random ant falling off of the hanging lights, of which I know a very slight amount about the magic system. Go.”), instead of building up the world and coming back for the characters, I decided to see if this character-first thing would actually work for me.
And holy cow did it make a difference. One character got me an entire nonhuman species. Another has told me a few things about the traits the culture values. Yet another got me thinking about the sequence of rulers giving up their names and going by titles and got me thinking about what to call said rulers (I still need to figure out how you get from one to the next) and whether they go by a set of pronouns usually applicable to objects with a degree of sentience. A minor antagonist got me into a minor tied me back to one of the first characters’ backstories. If I can just figure out a little more about the city this thing is set in, and what these people actually look like, I think I’ll be ready to write.
So yeah. This stuff works. Awesome.