Character vs. plot
Writers often debate the relative importance of character and plot. A more realistic question isn't "Which is more important?", but "Where do I start--with a character, or with a plot?" And the answer, as with most things artistic, is "It depends."
Some genres, such as techno-thrillers, emphasize plot over character. Terrorists have smuggled a nuclear suicide weapon onto a Boeing 747, the pilot has been shot through the head, and our hero or heroine must find a way to neutralize the bad guys and land the plane before an atomic blast scatters radioactive debris and body parts over New York City. A convincing character is likely to be less important than thrills, plot twists, and technical jargon.
In a literary novel or traditional women's fiction, character may be nearly everything. The story is likely to focus on interpersonal relationships and the main character's emotional, spiritual, or intellectual growth. As the novel unfolds, there may be few surprises--but we become intimately familiar with the main characters and the people around them.
The ideal novel combines both elements: a plot that's strong enough to keep the reader interested, and characters who are genuine enough to make the reader care how the story turns out.
Back to the chicken and egg
Let's assume that you're trying for that ideal novel with a strong plot and great characters. Where do you start? With a plot, or with your characters?
Answer: Neither. Instead, you begin with a premise--an idea that serves as the foundation for both plot and character.
A premise might read as follows:
A commodities broker lives for the excitement of the trading pit until his ex-wife dies and he must take custody of his four-year-old son.
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