When writing stories, at least for me (and maybe I’m doing it wrong), I’m usually thinking about concept/theme first, not characters.

While the strength of the characters is the most important thing, it’s usually not the first thing and this can be tricky to navigate.

A story’s concept/theme can feel so clear and decisive like “YEAH, it’s a zombie movie but with no zombies, and it’s about a virus that causes people to lose control of their rage, and it’s ultimately about notions of free will and culpability… We’ll need some good characters!”

Characters are hard for lots of reasons. While I find it effortless to write interesting, dynamic supporting roles, my protagonists are usually boring and sucky. More on that another day.

But my confidence really drops when I think “Shouldn’t I have started with characters?”

The thing about a lowercase-s story is that it’s linear, time-limited, and self-contained. Those are really helpful constraints.

The thing about a character is that it’s a person. Wicked complicated, unbounded, impossible to pin down.

I can craft a story with compelling themes and rising tension but none of it matters if no one cares about the characters.

I think I need to stop thinking about characters as “things” I’m “crafting.” I need to treat them as if they’re all already here. Because they are.

Every character that I’m able to channel in imagination or on the page is a character that’s been with me, grown with me, and is made up of bits and pieces of everything I’ve ever experienced, everyone I’ve ever met, and the way I interpret what they’ve experienced.

Rather than trying to define my characters, forcing them into my little dramatic devices so that they can grind my axes for me, it works much better when I simply ask them what they think, what they would do, and then just listen.