This started as a response on Steve Thomas’ web blog (found here) about the writing process:
I find my creative process is just that, my own process. I also like discussing other people’s processes, but most times I know that it will have incompatible elements with how my own muse works.
For example when writing fiction (in particular fantasy) I find that I can not even begin if I start by envisioning a plot. In my mind story is never about plot. Plot is a framework. Story is about character. If as an author I haven’t conceived a fairly detailed understanding of three key essential characters, then I can’t begin to write a story.
The first and formost important character is the narrator. Yes, that’s right, the narrator is the most important character in fiction in my mind. If you don’t understand your narrator and their relation to the story, then I believe you’ll do less than your best when writing. The narrator is the voice which carries everything. That voice has to work, or else the story won’t.
Some authors automatically default to their own voice, and thus in essence they become the default narrator of every story. This is certainly allowable, and if the author has a good voice it may work quite well. Myself I like to play around with the narrator and their relation to the story.
For example: in my first novel my narrator is second person, not involved in the story. The conceit as I write is that the narrator is relating the story from a point in the distant future from the story to a small intimate audience at an Inn. I never write that explicitly in the novel, but that is constantly in my mind as I wrote the story. The narrator doesn’t have access to the internal monologs of the characters of the story, and some events are portrayed in archetypical ways because the narrator is dealing with a story from what is his distant history learned second hand. Thus the narrator is deliberately inaccurate with some details, and deliberately skips events he doesn’t feel are relevant to the story he wants to tell his audience at the Inn.
In my second novel my narrator is first person, and the protagonist of the story. The conceit is that the narrator is now telling his personal story from a point in the near future to their same small intimate audience at the same Inn as the first novel. So in two different novels with different characters, different protagonists, I’ve kept the same narrator, but I’ve also shifted to a first person narrator who knows his own internal monolog. The narrator selectively shares some of what he was thinking, and selectively edits portions of the story to keep certain details hidden, or to move the pace along.
The second character I need to envision is the protagonist. The person who will serve as the focal character of the story. I have to know the protagonist’s mind, their philosophy, their behaviors, and their desires. I don’t need to lock in an appearance at first, but it tends to come with time. Once I know how that character thinks, I can start writing scenes with that character because I will be able to introduce a stimulus (or event) into the scene, and I will know how that character will react to it.
I still can’t write a story until I understand the antagonist. Sometimes the antagonist is the least understood, but they generally have to have a goal, and they have to be the kind of person/event/happening which provides the conflict of the story. Sometimes the antagonist comes in multiple parts such as hostile beings, unfortunate happenstance, and beings with conflicting objectives. Sometimes the protagonist becomes their own antagonist because of conflicting desires. The main point is that without understanding the source of conflict, you can’t have a story.
Another thing I’ve done with my first two novels (besides making them independent works set in the same “multiverse” setting) is to make certain the narrator stays with the protagonist in every scene. When the protagonist leaves the scene, even though I know as the author what else may be occuring outside of the protagonist’s knowledge, the narrator stays with the protagonist and limits you to their understanding of the story.
This is all to set up my third unfinished novel also set at a later time in the same “multiverse”. Once again I am using the conceit of a second person narrator (the same narrator who is the second person narrator of the first novel, and the first person narrator of the second novel) yet they are now a second person narrator with limited second person omnicient views of the main protagonist and now sub protagonists of the story. Yep, I’ve gone down the path of multiple protagonists, and now each protagonist can be followed by the narrator, and the narrator can alternate between the main and sub protagonists as he is now telling essentially five different interwoven stories in one novel. Also the narrator actually shows up in the third novel as a tertiary character in a couple of scenes.
The novels are all told as “Tales from the Reading Dragon Inn” which is the sub-title of the series I am writing. Yes, it is strange to think this much about how the story will work in ways the reader will never actually see or likely understand, but that is why writing is such an individual process after all.