In answer to a Quora.com question:
For me there are essentially three ways novels are born. When I start a novel, I start with an interesting:
- Character. If this is how your brain works, the question (how to create the major characters) is already partly answered. Ask yourself: what does she want? What is stopping her from getting it? Then fill in some blanks for yourself: who are her parents? How does she look, dress, behave? Where did she go to school? Is she a dog or a cat person? What did she have for breakfast? Ad infinitum.For the antagonist and secondary characters, you go through the same process: what do they want? What is stopping them from getting it? Etc.Different authors are more rigorous about this than others. Several successful ones I know write themselves copious notes—even essays—about the characters.
Then, once you know the world the characters inhabit and the story they are involved in, you give the readers the details they need to know to move the story forward. Be careful not to over-indulge yourself: the reader doesn’t need to know everything you know.
- Story. If your novel is story-driven, who do the characters need to be to move the story forward? Then go through a similar process as in Step 1.
- World. For those of us who work in Speculative Fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, horror, etc.), a lot of our settings are not the one the reader lives in. For some readers, that is why they are attracted to a particular genre. If a different, interesting world is what prompts the novel in the first place, we must ask ourselves, what is different about this world that makes it somewhere a reader would want to spend the hours it takes to read a novel?Then we ask ourselves what the story is that illuminates the world, and finally, who are the characters that drive the story.
Myself, I tend to work top down: the stories and worlds are born of the characters, not the other way around. But many successful authors vary the order.