What comes first: world, narrative, or characters?

September 29, 2014

Sparked by a comment over at RandomC (thanks Pancakes), this is a question I’ve thought about for a long time. When writing fiction, is it better to create the world, the narrative, or the characters first?

Some would say the world has to come first, to properly flesh it out rather than leave it as an afterthought. Many would say the narrative, because everything must serve that. Others would say the characters are most important, because it’s them who we’ll remember forever.

If I had to pick one, I would pick the narrative, from experience if nothing else. Everything must serve the story, this is true. But I think, to a large degree, the three must be developed in parallel. They need to work together—the setting must be its own beast, so that it feels like it would exist without the story or characters. But it must serve them as well, as the characters must serve the story and the story must mesh with the characters. You have to develop them all at once, equally, to get a balanced tale.

For example, for my upcoming book I created the characters and the world first, with an idea of where the story would go, but not a firm one. I then spent years (literally) trying to make the narrative work. I eventually arrived at a solution, but had I developed the three elements in parallel, I would have saved a lot of time.

Not that it always works out like that. If you get the bug, an idea for a story that just won’t let you go, sometimes you have to follow it through even if it gives you no end to trouble. We ought to be aware of the potential imbalance from doing one before the others at least, and try to redress it.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

12 Comments

  1. Reply

    Grace

    While I agree that it would be ideal to have all three grow together as a more cohesive organism, it’s probable that every writer has one area that edges out before the other two. Or as in my case, it could change each time depending on the story.

    I’m enjoying going through your posts (and seeing these new ones!) since it forces me to think through some aspects of my own writing that I haven’t before, and also gets me excited to open up that Word document and start tweaking/continuing writing. Personally, characters come first, usually followed by plot and then world. (I’m also in the fantasy/sci-fi realm… why can’t I just stick to reality and not have to keep track of EVERYTHING?) But this last project was plot, world, characters, in really quick succession.

    Also, thanks for re-opening comments, as I would not otherwise be processing (to this extent) the thoughts sparked by your blog.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      On the comments, good to hear! And comments like this one are exactly why I wanted to do that 😀

      You’re right that it depends, and saying “they all need to happen at the same time” is a squirrely little answer that should perhaps be shelved under “That’s nice, but it doesn’t always work like that.” I think the simple act of thinking about it helps the situation from getting too lopsided though, and that, if nothing else, helps.

  2. Reply

    cshin9

    What made you decide you wanted to write a story? Did you have an idea that kept popping up in your head until you decided to write it? Or did you not really know what you wanted to write, but knew you wanted to write something?

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      The first thing I ever wrote was a fanfic, but I scrapped it because it was crap and I didn’t like writing someone else’s characters. After that I wanted to try doing something original, and the story I’m writing now grew from that.

      So the latter, but it wasn’t that clean cut. Writing was just something I wanted to try. What made me write this story, and what has made me stick with it so long and made me, at this point, functionally unable to stop, is that I wanted to get this story out into the world. It’s something I want to see exist, and since no one else is going to write it, it’s up to me.

      The desire was there, but this story kept popping into my head because it demanded to be written. That’s why I’m writing it first.

  3. Reply

    ReverseTales

    If I had to choose, it’d be:

    1. World
    2. Characters
    3. Narrative

    There’s been too many times where authors put narrative first and ended up contradicting themselves. They end up creating plot holes or hand-waving things about the world and events that have occurred. Making characters do stupid things just because otherwise the plot wouldn’t exist. Introducing characters once and forgetting about them forever.

    I put world first because I believe that’s basically everything the other two is based on. Powers, lore, events, weapons, geography, organisations, etc. All the things supposedly influence the characters living in it. And then the plot (in-verse) is basically events that arise from their actions and their impact on the world and other characters.

    If you can show me examples of narrative first working well, then I’d love to read about it.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      I can’t show you an example of the narrative being created first, because we don’t get to know those things. Only the author knows what came first. In the wide world of fiction I’m sure there have been many stories that have been formulated in every permutation of these three options possible, but I don’t know which is which. All I know is which ones are good.

      I would say that world (setting) is far more important for fantasy and sci-fi though. For other genres, it can more easily be secondary, even an afterthought.

  4. Reply

    zeonista

    I first came to your site because of Random Curiosity, where I am a perpetual lurker. 🙂

    The emphasis on characters, world, and narrative do tend to depend on the sort of story desired, so I doubt there is a universal standard. Most of the stories I like put the narrative first. What can I say, the hero’s journey is a journey I like to take! The world setting for that type of story is important, but not that important, since the journey can take many forms and visit same-different places, and then the characters play their parts.

    However, a great world setting can make a fun playground for the characters, with the narrative coming in later….if the readers/watchers are still paying attention. Robert Jordan and Frank Herbert definitely succeeded in the “world first” arrangement though, so it can be done.

    A lot of anime from the past decade or so put the characters up front, and then built the narrative around them, with the world as the Shakespearean stage behind them. Speaking of Shakespeare, he built entire plays around a couple of characters, I cannot say anything more there. On a different level, Fred Saberhagen’s “Swords” books have a dozen magical swords as “main characters”, and the people who wield them are mostly talking plot points who move the Swords about to change the destiny of the world.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      You’re right of course. The real answer is “it depends”, but that’s just a boring (if accurate) answer that it’s just no fun, eh? Though being correct has a lot going for it.

  5. Reply

    Rikku

    I’m not sure if you’re familiar with tabletop RPGs, Stilts, but most storytellers/dungeon masters tend to gravitate strongly towards one of of these elements, with very noticeable effects.

    Storytellers that focus on characters are closer to the mentality of players – they enjoy making characters, plain and simple; so they appreciate the fact that the narrator makes and uses every single character in the world that is not a player. Their creations can be quite memorable, but they can easily get too attached to them; often getting frustrated when they end up getting underused or killed, and a storyteller has to, quite literally, “kill his darlings”, all the time – so it’s better if he has no darlings at all.

    Most game masters focus on the narrative, and that works quite well. That focus, however, tends to restrain the player’s freedom – when the players aren’t getting aboard the main storyline for some reason, the GM usually just keeps throwing plot hooks at them until they’re hooked. If a player tries to do something that derails the plot, the GM may outright cry out that “you can’t do that!”. That’s a little troubling.

    Nerdy GMs tend to favor on world-building, which gives players a lot of freedom – knowing how the world “works” makes it easier to improvise entire plotlines, locations and characters on-the-fly, so they can do whatever they want and you’ll still be able to keep the story going. On the other hand, a lot of the work of world-building ends up being underused (the players will only ever have contact with a limited amount of the stuff you built), and the resulting characters and plotlines tend to be less interesting – the “need” to keep the plotlines “consistent” with the rest of the world and its mechanics ends up restraining a little of their creative freedom and diversity.

    I focus on world-building (I deeply enjoy it, and value the freedom it gives to my players – without that freedom, they might as well play digital RPGs), but have been focusing more and more on improving narratives – even if the world ends up being shallower. Characters, fortunately, are a non-issue – the ephemeral nature of games makes it easy to build simple characters that grow as needed, once you get used to it.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      I am familiar with tabletop games, though I haven’t gotten to play many pen & paper ones.

      That’s an interesting way to approach the issue. It’s not a one-for-one comparison—that’s obvious, you know that as well—but it illuminates some of the same problem fiction authors have.

      If you fall too in love with your characters, it’s hard to put them through the wringer needed to tell a compelling story. You also might make them too competent, too perfect, and not flawed enough—these are all problems I’ve run into, and I’ve had to junk some characters (and one entire story) because of them.

      Narrative problems are not as big of a problem when you have total control, though sometimes letting things grow more organically makes for a better story. You have to give characters freedom to act—even if they’re all in your head—and railroading them can still be a problem.

      As for world-building, making too intricate of a world can certainly constrain your creativity. I’ve run into this problem (for reasons which will become clear once I let you all get a peek at my world … soon, soon), and partially wormed my way out of it in a fairly (I think) ingenious manner. But it’s still a problem. Luckily, I get to avoid the “unused elements” problem more than a pen & paper storyteller would, since I don’t have to react on the fly to the whims of players. I don’t get to enrich my story with their craziness though, which is a loss.

      Which alas, does not really bring us to an answer. But it does give me more to think about, which I like.

  6. Reply

    cshin9

    I was wondering how you decided that Wage Slave Rebellion, as it is now, was the story you wanted to tell. I imagine you thought of a lot of different ways it could go, or maybe even have thought of something completely different.

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      In the broadest sense, the reason I decided to tell the Firesign stories now is because I couldn’t not. I have ideas for other series I’d like to write, but this was the strongest itch, and the one I felt I needed to scratch to even have a chance to move on to the others. The biggest reason for that is the characters: By the time I was in development hell, and considering scrapping the whole thing, I already loved Mazik, Gavi, and Raedren too much to abandon them without having told their story. So I pressed on.

      As for how Wage Slave Rebellion became what it is, plot-wise, the simplest answer is that I stumbled into it. I had certain themes I wanted to convey—certain goalposts I wanted to pass—and after banging my head against a wall for ages, I finally figured out something that worked. (That something: Starting them out as disaffected wage slaves. The story used to be much different.)

      Ohandalso, I yanked the idea from my own life. It was the story I didn’t realize I had to tell until I stumbled upon it, and realized it was the story I needed the whole time.

      I feel like that wasn’t a satisfactory answer, but the honest truth is that the whole thing was a mess. First books have a way of being like that, I feel.

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