When I started writing this novel, I had very little idea of what to do or how to do it. I had grown up writing and I loved it, but had never tackled a project of this magnitude. I consulted a variety of books which purported to give advice on how to write a book of fiction in X number of days or months, or which gave general advice for specific aspects of creating fiction, and in the end I probably did end up taking something of value from each of them despite their rather formulaic approach. In the end I ended up doing things my way, which involved a lot of making things up as I went along and trusting my gut. (Stephen Colbert would be proud, except for the fact that I trusted my gut to write...a book.)
I knew that I wanted to focus on the characters, so the first step I took was to focus on the primary lineup. I sketched out some defining characteristics of a number of characters, roughed in some elements of their back stories, their family life, and the communities they grew up in. I determined how each of the characters was associated with the others and gradually fleshed them out (so to speak). I modified details repeatedly as I went and eventually began to get a feel for some of the people I would be following for a good long while.
I had initially planned to have one main character, but throughout this process, two characters had really come to the fore and were competing with each other. I couldn't decide who I wanted to follow most closely and who to relegate to a supporting role. (Somewhere around this time I came across this quote from Jorge Luis Borges: "Many of the characters are fools and they are always playing tricks on me and treating me badly.")
So before I had actually written a word of the novel, I decided I would have two main characters and would alternate chapters from each of their perspectives. That gave me a starting point and one of my writing process pieces was to reintroduce these two main characters, as they had not been in touch with each other for a few years. This became the very short first chapter of the book.
When I think about the process of creating characters, I remember a comment that a coworker had made to me years ago. She told me that one of the things that stood out to her about me was how I was always trying to think of something from the other person's perspective. I hadn't thought of it in those terms before, but that is the essence of what I was left with after developing characters that intrigued me enough to commit to the long process ahead of me.
Now I had the people: what were they going to do with the situations I threw at them and with the decisions the other characters made? And would I be flexible enough to allow them to do what they would do instead of trying to force them to do what I thought they should do -- even if they end up playing tricks on me and treating me badly?