Or is it a character?
Does every great story start with an idea or a character?
Yes. Sort of. Actually, it depends on whose shoes you’re in when you answer.
For writers, it’s ideas, except when it isn’t. Most often you get an idea and have to find a character to fit it, but sometimes you find a character searching for an idea. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
For readers, it’s characters hands down. Except when it isn’t. Ideas can certainly grab readers. That’s what book blurbs are for. But if you get a reader to crack your book and start reading, the characters had better engage them, because really that’s what they care about. A house may be burning down, which as an idea (or part of an idea) may carry readers through a page or so. But they want to know whose house is burning down and why they should care about that person’s pain and loss. If you open with a lovingly detailed twenty page description of a house engulfed in flames, you probably won’t make the sale.
I used to start stories based on ideas all the time. That’s fine, but the ideas became all-consuming. Characters in these (admittedly amateurish) stories were mostly vehicles to explore the ideas. Gradually, I learned to put the characters front and center, and a role reversal occurred. Today, my story ideas serve as vehicles for exploring the characters, which makes for more engaging tales. That doesn’t mean the ideas don’t come first, chronologically. My three-part story “The Gift of Empathy” began with an idea: a man so intuitively empathetic that other people’s pain overwhelms him. But that idea functions a vehicle for exploring the narrator’s life. It’s not an end in itself.
I still usually begin with ideas, but every so often a character slips up beside me and begs to be written into a story. My first Howard County Mystery, The Fibonacci Murders, began that way when I got the idea of featuring a mathematician in a mystery novel, but the idea for the story itself didn’t come along for another year. The series, it turned out, was more about a trio of detectives than the mathematician, although he has cameo roles in subsequent novels.
My crime/humor novel in progress started with a pair of characters who debuted in a flash fiction piece. I introduced them merely as a joke, but two or three stories later, I liked them so much I decided to put them into a novel. The idea for the novel only came a few months later.
But actually, it’s not a binary process. There’s interplay between characters and ideas. Ideas tend to demand certain kinds of characters, while specific characters only lend themselves to certain kinds of ideas. If you decide to write a mystery, you’ll likely need a sleuth, whether professional or amateur. The kind of mystery you want to write will refine your protagonist. A sweet old lady might work in a cozy, but not in a hard-boiled story.
Moreover, characters themselves generate ideas that refine stories, which sometimes results in the introduction of other characters. So it’s all a fairly complicated process, almost organic in nature. Stories grow based not only on what the author initially plans, but also on where they wander in the course of growing.
In a way, then, it’s a trick question. Ideas can lead to characters. Characters can lead to ideas. Both can spring simultaneously from the writers mind. Which comes first, if either, isn’t at all the issue. Rather, the issue is how they are paired and interact. With the right pairing, ideas function as vehicles for exploring characters while characters work out the details of ideas.
And that’s how great stories start.