Michael Spradlin: This is the chicken or the egg question – when you are writing, is it the world that is then populated, or the character that populates the world?
George R. R. Martin: Both are valid. Tolkien began with world building, but his characters are what we remember as much as anything else; Strider, Gandalf, and Samwise will always be with us. The story begins and ends with the character. I try the world building, but I don’t think I’m as good. I got a letter about the languages in my books once, with one person asking if I could send him the syntax and vocabulary for the Dothraki language. I’ve invented seven words of the language, and I’ll make an eighth when I need to (the language was fleshed out for the HBO series). The world isn’t as fleshed out as Tolkien’s world.
With A Song of Ice and Fire, I started with a vision of a scene of wolf pups with their mother dying in the snow. I didn’t know where it was going, but when I finished writing that chapter I had an idea for the second for the second chapter, and at the end of 50-60 pages I figured I needed to start drawings maps.
Kevin J. Anderson (Terra Incognita): When I write, I’m building a world, developing the cultures and the economics and the religions and so on. You need people to do the interesting parts of the cultures, so you get the characters and they move the plot forward.
Peter Orullian (The Unremembered): Both. I start with characters. I love drawing maps and world building, but I take away characters. That’s where most of my energy lies. Having a large scale is one of the best ways to define epic fantasy – it is not a bar brawl, but nations warring against each other. It resonates when a father holds his dead son on a battlefield though. The battle is great, but when I can write down what is heartbreaking for the individual is what matters most to me.
Also included in io9’s summary are some of the writers’ responses to categorization of their work as “epic,” which I love— there are few words more overused and misapplied. I would love to hear a recording of the whole thing!