As part of my attempts to improve, I have been reading, in particular over the weekend I read Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoints. The book has been around since 1988 but I hadn't read it.
He uses the acronym MICE to explain about how various books are created but it struck me that MICE goes further -- to the heart of how an author gets her ideas and what interests her.
Ultimately you have to be good at everything. Without plot, there is no characters and without characters, there is no plot. Can you tell I get irritated by authors who claim that their work is entirely character driven or plot driven, particularly when they are writing commercial fiction? It is more complicated than that. It is a combination. Not one without the other. But ultimately it is the CHARACTERS that people remember and who linger. Characters who breathe life into a plot. But plot gives characters something to do.
How to get there:
Authors are either more Milieu, Idea, Character or Event (Premise) orientated. The end product is what counts so one is not better than the other. It is what intrigues the author and gives the impetus to her work.
Milieu or world building means that readers want to return time and again to the world the author creates. Debbie Macomber and Robyn Carr are fantastic at world building. Jan Karon as well. Tolkien. CS Lewis. JK Rowling. In fact any author who writes a successful series where readers want to return has a real milieu strength. Build your world right, and readers will return time and again to experience that connection (even if perhaps the characters are not as well rounded or as fully dimensional.) They want to live in that world. Without proper world building, the story feels flat. Without knowing where it is set, you can't make a lot of choices about the character and how they will interact with people.
Idea means theme. What the story is about and the message the author wants to convey. Again without the idea, you can't know how you want a character to grow. Without the Idea you don't know how they will grow or why they should grow.
Character means the people who populate the story.Some authors are intrigue by a character and want to explore how they change. It is about getting inside someone's head and seeing what makes them tick. Readers remember characters. But a character needs to be more than a talking head.
Event means premise. Some authors are drawn to a certain premise or happening. A reunion story. A runaway bride. Why is this story going to happen at all? What is going to cause the characters to change? Without knowing the point of change, you don't have a story. What is the character going to do in the story and what do you want at the end? It is the essence of storytelling. The dictates of the premise helps to determine what sort of character you build. Without a story, the reader is reading an essay. Essays have their place but not in commercial fiction.Without a premise, you can't begin to ask about motivation.
Hopefully you can see choosing where to start is a bit like chicken or egg. Sometimes it is impossible to tell.
There is no right or wrong answer. It is merely where you start, and to have a 3-d character that readers will remember you have to use all the letters in MICE. But different authors start in different places and that just makes it interesting. But knowing where you like to start can help.
So what do you like to start with? Milieu, Idea, Character or Event.
Me? I suspect that I start with Event,closely followed by Milieu and then I start asking questions about Character. The Idea gets incorporated in later.