Characters always precede the world in my stories. At least they have so far. I’ll get an idea for the characters, some personality traits, maybe imagine how they look or something odd that stands out about them, and that’ll be where the world starts. Then I’ll think of the characters that surround them and where they’d live and work. And then the world starts to form around them.
I haven’t ever created a world and populated it with characters. That prospect actually kind of scares me. To make something so intricate, and then try and find all the little ways you can tell a story within those guidelines. Honestly, it sounds both impressive and daunting. I admire anyone who can build intricate worlds that are extremely detailed from coast to coast of each fantastical continent.
I’m always curious how much of a secondary world has been plotted out and how much is being modified as the story moves forward. For me, there’s a lot that’s a little vague and as the story warrants I’ll focus in on those areas to fill them out. So if there’s a town that’s mentioned offhand, and then eventually the characters have to go there, chances are that town will only become detailed once I realize it has become important. Hopefully, I’ll know a little bit about the region, kingdom, or area that’ll help inform the general society of the town. That’s a simple example of how the general ideas help inform the details, but the details are only filled in as the story warrants. I don’t know if it’s the best method, but it’s the one that feels like it works for me.
Detailing that town, and the surrounding towns, or everything in a kingdom without knowing whether it will ever be seen is a little horrifying. There’s a difference between knowing where town A and town B are on the map, and some general ideas about their trade or something, versus knowing the love affairs of each person and when they muck out the latrines.
For me, the world is always something that is made to serve the characters. Defining so much of it in detail without knowing who the characters are feels like it would force me to work inside constraints. I’d much rather be able to mold and alter the world as the story progresses so it serves the plot and characters as needed, instead of the characters and plot serving the world.
Do you prefer to make the world first and populate it with characters, or make the characters first and build the world around them?
Edit (February 25, 2019): This series is about the things that I've learned, or am learning, about worldbuilding. It's me trying to level up my craft, and documenting the process. These posts represent my personal approach to worldbuilding, and the way I do it might not be right for you. I'm not an authority on writing, and so everything in these posts should be taken with not only a grain of salt, but a heaping bucket of saline.