Sometimes I have an idea I want to explore or a premise that I think sounds interesting. Sometimes I come up with a few characters, or a setting, or a particular mood, or I have a set of themes I want to explore. Whatever it is, it’s very vague at the beginning and becomes more concrete as it’s refined.
I’ve written blog posts about this before – how The Book of Immortality and The Land of Two Moons went through several different versions until I found a setting, characters, and plot that seemed right. This happens with most of my stories. It generally takes a couple of tries before I figure out the right “story” for a particular set of ideas.
What’s the best way to explore things? What kind of characters are right? What kind of world would best suit the story? As I develop a story, the requirements can change drastically. Sometimes I’ll need to do heavy worldbuilding when I decide that I want to set a story in a secondary world, when it had originally been developed in a primary world. And then I might have to make a conlang for that secondary world.
Many times, character names & appearances will stay the same, but their personalities, backgrounds, etc. will change until they fit the current story. The same thing happens with the names of settings, groups, etc. The names will probably stay the same (or shift slightly) but they’re often given to different things (a former country becomes the name of a bar, or something like that).