Joseph Campbell wrote about "The Hero With a Thousand Faces". I just had an image of my next novel having a few faces too - maybe not a thousand, but perhaps half a dozen or so.
Okay... three. I got three.
1. Framework: The Laws of my Universe
My story has a skeleton, a framework, a basic structure upon which everything else is mounted. For me, this structure helps to define the "physics" of the world in which one or more events take place. My particular framework has a few premises, such as "you can't fly or change the laws of physics", "people are born, live, and die", and many other premises that make the world of the story resemble my own reality to a large degree.
Psychologically, in some cases, dreams or imagination can be just as real or have as much impact on my characters as their waking experiences.
Real-life experience, or research that results in plausible actions and events - cause and effect - is what drives the creation of the framework, and helps to determine it's structure.
Thank God for Google. I do not know how people researched things before it.
2. Believability: Dancing on the Edge
Once I've have established a plausible-sounding story framework, I feel that any fantastic-sounding elements which I introduce don't need to be overly fantastic in order to surprise, or hopefully entertain, my reader. I think that this juxtaposition of expectations is similar to how the same middle-tone colour can appear to be darker or lighter in tone, when placed next to black of white. In other words, context is key. But how much unreality is tolerable? How much camp and wit is acceptable? How many cliffhangers can the reader stand? That kind of exciting stuff rarely happens to me. How much unbelievability is believable?
3. Dialogue and Characterization: "What are you lookin' at, Bub?"
How should people talk and behave and react to the things that happen to them? Admittedly, this is largely subjective territory, although in some ways, this aspect, which encompasses things like culture, age, society, "life" experience, and strong plot-lines, is connected to and driven by (or perhaps just interacts with?) the "Framework" aspect and the essential laws of my world.
Sometimes, this aspect of writing becomes easy and almost automatic, and for me, occasionally emerges almost spontaneously, almost from within itself. Some dialogue or setup scenes emerge in a blur, like raw material forced through a die into an extrusion that seems to have just the exact profile that's needed at the moment - a "Fuzzy Pumper Writing Factory". This experience is a major high in the process for me, emotionally.
At other times, writing is like digging a well with your fingernails - a real tough claw through very hard and stubborn territory. That's where I end up questioning myself as a writer, questioning my raw material - my past (that well that appears too dry to give me anything useful at the moment), and questioning my endurance as a writer. At these times, writing feels like a real elusive bitch-goddess... That's when I find myself going back to do more research, or seeking inspiration from other writers or from stories in other media, or just dropping the project for a little while.
But man, when I can get it so I can see that character's face, smell their hair, their cigarette smoke, and can see right through their skull into their minds, it feels like I know exactly what to say for them. When that happens, the well runneth over, and the paragraphs seem to grow and grow.
That's when it's fun to write.