Sparked by a comment over at RandomC (thanks Pancakes), this is a question I’ve thought about for a long time. When writing fiction, is it better to create the world, the narrative, or the characters first?
Some would say the world has to come first, to properly flesh it out rather than leave it as an afterthought. Many would say the narrative, because everything must serve that. Others would say the characters are most important, because it’s them who we’ll remember forever.
If I had to pick one, I would pick the narrative, from experience if nothing else. Everything must serve the story, this is true. But I think, to a large degree, the three must be developed in parallel. They need to work together—the setting must be its own beast, so that it feels like it would exist without the story or characters. But it must serve them as well, as the characters must serve the story and the story must mesh with the characters. You have to develop them all at once, equally, to get a balanced tale.
For example, for my upcoming book I created the characters and the world first, with an idea of where the story would go, but not a firm one. I then spent years (literally) trying to make the narrative work. I eventually arrived at a solution, but had I developed the three elements in parallel, I would have saved a lot of time.
Not that it always works out like that. If you get the bug, an idea for a story that just won’t let you go, sometimes you have to follow it through even if it gives you no end to trouble. We ought to be aware of the potential imbalance from doing one before the others at least, and try to redress it.