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January 29, 2019

How Do Pantsers Develop Characters?

Lens refracting a face in multiple images with text: Discovering Our Characters

Every story we write might need different approaches, and knowing our various writing-process options can help us be flexible to those needs. As I mentioned in that post linked above, a few weeks ago, I was a guest on the Keystroke Medium podcast, talking about story structure and beat sheets.

However, despite being known for my story structure and beat sheet tools for planning/plotting a story, I actually fall closer to the pantser end of the plotter-pantser spectrum (i.e., I write by the seat of my pants). Yes, I’m a walking contradiction, especially as I’m a definite plotter in the rest of my life. *smile*

For a different KSM podcast episode, Dean Floyd asked several insightful questions about the pantsing process. Dean’s a plotter aiming to be more of a “plantser” (somewhere in the middle ground of planning a story without going full plotting or pantsing) and curious about different writing processes. I wrote a long reply to his questions, which of course made me think “I should turn that into a blog post.” *grin*

Plotters might find any kind of pantsing hard to understand, but even pantsers can struggle with pantsing our characters’ development, as that process comes with a different set of problems from developing our plots.

Story Development: The Pieces and Parts

When we talk about developing a story, we might be referring to several different aspects of our story. We might have in mind how we’re coming up with the plot, the characters, the theme, etc.

Every author approaches the development of those elements differently. Some might plan out the plot events but wing the characters, others plan the backstory details and emotional arc for their characters but wing the plot, and so on.

Yet when it comes to the term pantser, most seem to think more of the plot side rather than the character side. Frequent questions to pantsers are along the lines of: “How do you write a story without knowing how it ends?”

In reality, if we’re discovering our characters as we write, similar struggles can crop up for pantsers on the character side as well: “How do we write a story without knowing who we’re writing about?”

Let’s take a look at the basics of plot and character development before we explore what that uncertainty at the character level means for pantsers…

Plot vs. Character Development

At their essence, all stories are about change. Most stories consist of (at least) two arcs tracking that change: a story/plot arc and a character/emotion arc. They start at Point A and things happen in a cause-and-effect, action-reaction chain to end up at Point B.

  • Story/plot arcs are about the “what” or the “why.” What happens to make things change? Why is the story happening now and not a year ago?
  • Character/emotional arcs are about the “who” and the “how.” Who is facing the obstacles and has to change to succeed? How are they changing?

With both plot and character, if we’re looking for a middle ground between plotting and pantsing, we could start with the following basics defining Point A and B for each.

The Basics of Plot Development

For plot arcs, we’d want to know the main turning points of our story:

  • What drags the character into the story and forces them to make a choice to get involved?
  • What raises the stakes and tension during the middle of the story?
  • What’s going to make the character lose hope before the end?
  • What’s going to push the character to change and face the obstacles at the end?

The Basics of Character Development

For character arcs, we’d want to know their beginning (Point A: what’s holding them back) and their destination (Point B: what they want):

  • What does the character long for and desire? (story ending)
  • What choices are they making that keep them from their dream? (story beginning)
  • What do they learn? (how they change)
  • What are they willing to do at the end that they weren’t willing to do before? (story climax)

(Note that the growth of “flat arc” characters comes in trying to change the world rather than themselves, such as in Hunger Games. So these questions would be slightly tweaked, often focusing on the character learning to exploit a weakness in the world.)

Plot vs. Character Development for Pantsers

Personally, I find pantsing my story’s plot easier than pantsing my story’s characters. As everyone’s brain is wired differently, others will have different experiences, but let me explain the difference I see between the two main types of development.

Pantsers and Plot Development

When it comes to discovering our story’s plot as a pantser, to some extent, we can follow a cause-and-effect chain. One event leads to (causes) the next, so we could write a whole plot for a story simply by following the effects of the previous event.

Write by the seat of your pants? Can we pants our character development or just our plot? Click To TweetPut another way, if we have ideas for the start of our story—and we have an intuitive understanding of story structure—we could end up with a coherently plotted story by instinct alone.

My instincts naturally lead me through that cause-and-effect chain, complete with turning points and rising stakes. Pantsers without that intuitive understanding might need to plan a bit more.

In other words, both pantsers and plotters use story structure to develop their plots. Plotters figure out their story structure consciously or “off the page” before starting, while pantsers’ instincts might allow them to figure out their story structure subconsciously or “on the page” during drafting.

Conscious vs. subconscious—it’s just a different process of figuring out the structure of our story. A different way of working out the details.

Pantsers and Character Development

On the other hand, the cause-and-effect chain won’t help us discover our characters as a pantser. If they’re struggling with their relationship with a parent, that situation exists even before we stumble into a big argument scene in the middle of our draft, and hints should have been woven into the story earlier.

However, pantsing our characters’ development isn’t all bad, as it can also lead to more organic characters. They’re not acting or reacting in certain ways simply because the plot requires them to. Instead, their actions and reactions are purely driven by what we know about them, what’s come before, and what they want.

My instincts help me—to some extent—through developing their character arc, but there’s more layers to characters than just the aspects connected to their growth. And whether we’re talking about arc details or other layers, pantsers might figure out who their characters are only during the discovery process of drafting.

What Does It Mean to Discover Characters?

For pantsers, the first draft is often a “discovery” draft—a draft that allows writers to discover the story bubbling in their subconscious. Pantsers might have vague ideas about a character’s longings, goals, or flaws, but many times the details—and sometimes very important, story-defining details—aren’t known until we put the words to screen.

For example:

  • In my novel Pure Sacrifice, the second scene reveals the hero is a prince. Even though that detail drives much of the plot (and his false belief) as he struggles to determine his place among his kind, I did not know that detail before I typed it. Typing the words was the act of discovery.
  • In my novel Stone-Cold Heart, I didn’t discover that the hero had come into power in a roundabout way that left his abilities restricted until I was two-thirds of the way through drafting. In that case, hints had been piling up earlier, but I hadn’t consciously realized what they meant. Putting those pieces together—much as a reader might—was the act of discovery.
  • In my novel Treasured Claim, my heroine’s voice was strong in my mind from the beginning. Essentially, she told me who she was from page one. Listening to her voice and following her lead was the act of discovery.

How Does Discovery Affect Our Drafting Process?

You might be asking now—what was the story of Pure Sacrifice going to be if my fingers hadn’t typed that revelation about the hero being a prince? In my case, for my pantsing process, the answer is: Nothing.

That always was the story. I just didn’t consciously know it until my subconscious provided the details. (My subconscious often works on a need-to-know basis with me. *smile*)

For Stone-Cold Heart, my subconscious had been giving me the hints to add to my draft all along, and I was just slow in recognizing what they meant. Most of the time I write something that seems out of place, I’ll later think “Oh! That’s why that’s in there” as the pieces fit together. (To which my muse says, “Duh. Took you long enough.”)

For all of my books—but especially with those two stories with the bigger “revelations”—discovery required me to trust my subconscious while drafting.

  • With Pure Sacrifice, I had to trust that—when prompted to type such a story-defining detail—my subconscious had a plan.
  • With Stone-Cold Heart, I had to trust my subconscious had a plan for all those earlier hints and not edit them out as being unnecessary to the story I thought I was telling.

What Does It Take to Pants a Character’s Development?

That brings us to Dean Floyd’s question that prompted all my thoughts today. In the KSM Facebook group, he asked:

“How do you keep your keep your characters “in line” and doing things “in character” when you are by nature of pantsing discovering who they are?”

Every pantser might have a different answer. For me, my answer would slightly change from story to story and character to character.

In general, I suspect pantsers are more likely to follow characters’ lead for that organic development than attempt to keep their characters “in line.” As I replied to Dean, if I’ve been following the lead of my subconscious, my story usually just needs tweaks during revisions, and I don’t have to make major changes.

Sometimes Pantsing Works Better than Others…

For my novel Ironclad Devotion, I didn’t need to make any tweaks for my hero’s backstory wounds with each of his parents, even though I didn’t know what the early hints were leading toward until much later. Sometimes, it all just fits.

How can we write a story if we don't know our characters well yet? Click To TweetHaving everything click right from first draft is usually the exception and not the rule, however, and that ability to see what needs to be changed for consistency’s sake is a skill all its own. For Stone-Cold Heart, I had to go back and tweak my hero’s thoughts through the whole story to match how that backstory detail of how he came to power would affect his false belief.

Even with my experience, I still didn’t quite get it right on my first revision pass. My developmental editor called me out with “This feels like something you decided late in the drafting process.” Oops, busted. *smile*

To Successfully Develop a Character through Pantsing…

Those of us who can (eventually) successfully pants our way through character development likely have a combination of traits that include:

  • enough trust in our subconscious to follow where it leads
  • strong skills with weaving character threads to identify, keep track, and make smooth tweaks to maintain consistency for details discovered later
  • a clear enough sense of the character’s voice that they lead us through the process of discovery themselves
  • ability to hear and follow our subconscious cues for characters
  • strong editing skills to create a coherent character from the pieces during revisions
  • enough storytelling or drafting experience to trust the process

In other words, it’s possible to be a pantser through the process of character development, but it’s certainly not easy or right for everyone.

Even those comfortable with pantsing through the plotting side of things might want to plan their character development, at least a little bit. And given how every story and character is different, we might need to adjust our character development process with each story and character we write. *smile*

Where do you fall on the plotter-pantser spectrum? How much do you develop your characters before writing? Have you ever used pantsing to discover and develop a character? Did you struggle or did the pantsing process work for you? Do you have any other insights or suggestions about pantsing a character’s development?

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Mari Christie

I am a pantser, through and through, with the possible exception of the brainstorming stage, where I develop ideas, but don’t try to place them in context. I am FAR better at pantsing characters than plot. (Plot ties itself in knots; characters just keep telling me the story until I get it right.) Part of what works for me on the character side is a piece of advice I give to students and novice novelists all the time: The characters have lived your story already, so they know it better than you do. In the first draft, the best thing you can do is let them tell you what they know. In other words, the plot comes from the characters, primarily, and as they tell me the same story from different perspectives, I get to know them, much as you get to know a new person who will become a friend. They grow in depth and complexity as their story does. Now, that said, once the first draft is done, I am their god, and I can smite anything I want. This is where I get into any issues of characters not being well-rounded enough and the story having holes or inconsistencies. (How many sides to every story?)

Anyway, long way of saying “cool post.” Who knew there was method to my madness? 😉

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Greetings,

Haven’t replied in a while. Doesn’t mean I stopped reading your posts.

“even pantsers can struggle with pantsing” … BRAHHHH!!! BRAHHH!!!!
That is funny.
You are funny.
So…about that stand-up career move. When will I see you in Vegas?

Seriously, though, that just caught me in the middle of some serious javaScript and slider development.

LOL

Stay Well,
Donovan

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Great post, thanks!
As you say the subconscious tends to provide what we need. If the character does something that doesn’t feel right, or more usually with me, the character is described offhandedly as doing something when we really should give it more weight and see them actually do it, the subconscious will prod for the better version to be written.

E J Randolph

Pure pantser, all the way through. So much fun to get lost in a creative swirl. Then comes applying analysis in the rewrites and editing, which is enjoyable in a different way. I find it is too boring to plot it all out. What’s to discover then? You’ve got it right that knowing how causal chains operate makes it easier. I go into a book knowing there has to be a challenge. Something or someone must be in opposition. There will be a low point, a crisis, a resolution. I use questions when I write fiction or nonfiction. In a story, I’m going along, and I say, is it going to be this easy? What would put a spanner in the works? I even ask, what would be funny? What would be disastrous? What would be a complication? What would show someone’s character? What would just be interesting? Whenever I am stumped, asking some questions gets me going again. As long as I keep a basic structure in my mind even if I have no details, somehow each major turning point ends up on the page along with strange worlds and new characters. Rewrites and editing tighten everything up. It’s not always easy, but it’s just fun. If I had to make an editor happy or an agent, or even a publisher, I might not enjoy myself as much. Actually, I’m sure of it. I can see that it would be real easy to kill the fun. And, then, why…  — Read More »

Sieran

Yeah, I pants 100%. I pants in my real life too, lol, I hate planning. Hmm I find both plot and character easy to pants, maybe because practice makes perfect. I see my characters as people who already exist in their universe, so I don’t need to make anything up or decide anything. Everything is already there for me to discover. If I accidentally write anything wrong, I can just go back to correct it during the editing phase. 😊

Often I would wish that my character would do X, but if they won’t, then that’s too bad for me. They can’t be forced. Just like love can’t be forced.

stormdog
stormdog

Thank you for the interesting topic. My first writing effort was a sci-fi trilogy written in third person and plotted down to the second (two plot lines coming together). I’ve since written a series of crime fiction novels, all in first person and none plotted I visualise the “pants” process as like being on a small boat in a tidal fyord at the mercy of the tide and the wind – the tide representing the characters and the wind the plot (with a simple oar/sail for minor directional changes). One drives the other – characters change the plot through actions and conversations, and characters emerge/slip away through plot twists. I trust the elements to take me on a journey and beach me at an appropriate point (end of the book). The book is the journey. As for the “trust in our subconscious” – too right! I had one scene where a detective with her sidekick had a conversation with a young girl whose mother kept interjecting. As the detectives left and were discussing the parlous state of the case (which I was agreeing with!) the detective had a light bulb moment that solved the crime. I stopped typing. I had to go back over the conversation. Did the mother really say that? Yes, she had! Even though I’d just written the scene, I wasn’t aware of what the detective had picked up on. Scary? Sure, but I’ve had many similar disconcerting moments when writing but it does explains why, to…  — Read More »

Jaq D Hawkins

I love those moments when elements of the story click together and suddenly you understand why!

I get a general impression of my characters as soon as the story idea formulates. Sort of like you get a first impression of someone you’ve just met. From there I get to know them from how they react to whatever is happening in the story.

This is where some of us moan about our characters going independent on us. I often don’t know what they’re going to do until they do it. I still remember one tearful moment, literally, tears sliding down my face, while I was writing Dance of the Goblins and a character I was fond of plunged into a situation that would surely get him killed. I mentally begged him not to do it, but he was young and impulsive, and in love with the girl.

It was a traumatic session for me.

christineplouvier

Planning writing is anathema, to me. From elementary school through graduate school, if a preliminary outline was required by the teacher, I pantsed the writing assignment quickly, extracted an outline from what I’d written, and then revised the paper at my leisure. I completely pantsed my first novel, a mixed-genre story set in contemporary Ireland. Fairly early on, I figured out how it was going to end, but I had no idea how it was going to get there. While I was writing it, I did three years of cultural immersion research, because when I began it, I knew almost nothing about the place or the people. Sometimes there were plot holes I couldn’t fill and character development mysteries I didn’t know how to solve until I would discover a relevant item in one of the online Irish newspapers that I read daily. Other than my learning from comprehensive research what an average Irish person could be expected to know or to have experienced, character development was a matter of my watching the characters behave and listening to them talk, and reconstructing their backgrounds from what I saw and heard. (I’m a retired Registered Nurse, so my educational and clinical background in psychology is an advantage that most writers don’t have, but like any other information need, basic psychology can be researched and applied to fictional characters.) My current major work-in-progress is a little different, because it’s a historical novel, so the course of European history has already outlined part…  — Read More »

William Ablan
William Ablan

I consider myself a pantster. What’s weird is I know my characters going in rather well, though I’ve had some surprises along the way. I think what I look at is knowing who they are, and then seeing how the story changes them along the way. An example are two characters, both cops. Her name is Pam Harmon, blonde, good looking, a good Mormon girl. He’s RJ Madril, most definitely Hispanic, but handsome and a good Catholic. There’s always a lot of attraction between the two of them, they’re very good friends, but they dance around their differences. Are they going to be enough to keep them apart or will events bring them closer together?

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[…] And anyone in the “Pantsers” category may forgo exhaustive pre-planning in favor of writing a discovery draft. Then, in subsequent iterations, they can revise to make their character’s behavior consistent, […]

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