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.
- 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?Pin It