Pantster or Plotter? Let Your Characters Decide!
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Whether you’re a ‘pantster’ or a ‘plotter’ – one of the best pieces of advice about coming up with a story is to let your characters take the lead.
When it comes to writers, there are generally two breeds. There are the ‘plotters’ who carefully outline each stage of their book, sometimes right down the chapter, so they know exactly where the narrative thread is going. This is widely acknowledged as the ‘right’ way – and I’ll admit that I very rarely experience writer’s block when I’ve spent time plotting out exactly what happens on every step along the character’s journeys.
However, the ‘pantster’ is the other breed of writer – who just “writes by the seat of their pants” and sees where the story takes them. While I’ve written myself into a corner a number of times by ‘pantsting’ it, a lot of authors swear by this method – including Stephen King, who can hardly be knocked for it. In his must-read work On Writing, he describes it like this:
“Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground… Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world.”
I’ve definitely experienced that – like I’m not really ‘inventing’ the story or characters; I’m more just channeling them from wherever the stories come from onto the page. I personally can see the power of ‘pantsting’ because it allows you to discover the story in much the same way as the reader does – or, to quote William Faulkner: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
But is there a middle ground between the two? Can you enjoy the roller-coaster of “writing by the seat of your pants” while also keeping things organized by organizing the plot out beforehand? I truly think you can – and last week, when we interviewed the talented author Whitney Dineen, one of the things she said really resonated with me as exactly what I believe this method is:
“I tend to let the voices have free reign in my writing. Whatever story they want to tell, I let them. I just write them down.”
I think this is really the cornerstone of good writing – that it’s driven mostly by character, rather than plot. When somebody asks a writer: “How do you come up with your stories?” I think the trick is – we don’t. We let our characters do that for us. The only difference between being a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantster’ from that point on is whether you experience the spoiler-filled synopsis, and use that as the basis for your pre-written plot plan – or you just “write by the seat of your pants” and see where your character’s actions take you!
The Character Driven Story
So, when I talk about using characters to ‘plot’ your story, I often think back to my earliest experiences as a reader; and how they shaped what I believe a good story line is.
As a child, I had two introductions to reading and writing, and both were equally formative. On my mother’s side, there were all her romance books by authors like Jackie Collins, Jilly Cooper and Harold Robbins – books which warped my innocent little heart and set me on the path to becoming a romance novelist myself. My father, on the other hand, was a huge science-fiction fan. As a child, I remember one entire wall of our home covered with paperbacks by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Edmund Cooper, Arthur C. Clarke and many, many others.
My mother was and is a writer – published, and prolific – and it’s in her footsteps that I followed. However, I have to credit my father – then an accountant – for what might be one of the most important pieces of advice I ever received about writing: What he felt made the perfect science fiction story.
I’m paraphrasing, obviously, since this exchange happened more than 30-years-ago, but he basically said:
“A good science fiction story is when you get ordinary people, and read about what they do when they have something extraordinary happen to them.”
It’s an incredibly simple premise, but if you read any of the great science fiction novels and novellas of the 1950s and 1960s, you’ll see how true it is. I quoted Ray Bradbury above – author of the seminal Fahrenheit 451 – and he is a master of this method. Take that famous (and timely, given our current political climate) novel. It was about a regular guy – literally Guy Montag – who lives in a society in which all non-approved books are burned to prevent the spread of ‘subversive’ thinking. The book is simply about how this regular guy reacts when he starts to question the world he lives in. Ray Bradbury doesn’t so much ‘plot’ the book, as simply illustrate how somebody might react in that situation.
Look at other science fiction greats – Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men, about a society in which women have eliminated the need for men; until one ‘man killer’ discovers a secret enclave of them. On the other end of the spectrum, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – another painfully timely work of fiction, given how aspects of it have become fact. In that book, an unsuspecting girl called Offred has the veneer of her evangelical society peeled back; and the entire book follows her simply reacting to this new revelation.
We recently interviewed science fiction writer Luke Smitherd, and my introduction to his writing was The Stone Man. It was about how society would react when a towering, stone statue appears in the middle of a crowded city… and starts moving! To me, this book instantly took me back to breathlessly reading my father’s 60-year-old science fiction paperbacks, because the purity of the premise – “what would you do?” is the crux of the story. Once again, like Ray Bradbury, Luke didn’t so much plot the story as simply recount how his characters would react to their unexpected circumstances.
To my mind, this premise has colored everything I know about writing, and it’s made my own writing career a lot easier to manage. I started off reading and wanting to write exciting and elaborate spy novels like Ian Fleming’s James Bond – but even though I still love those books, I realize now that they’re very forced. In the spy spoof Austin Powers, they even make a joke about it by having the super spy’s boss be called ‘Basil Exposition’ because his role is to explain the plot.
With the best books of any genre – science fiction, thrillers or romance – the premise is simple. A troupe of colorful, richly realized characters is thrust into an unusual situation; and the story writes itself, as the characters react to their situation simply as their characters would. You don’t need to ‘plot’ anything – because if your characters are good, they write the ‘plot’ for you; and that becomes, as Ray Bradbury says, merely the footprints of their independent actions.
The only difference between being a ‘pantster’ and a ‘plotter’ then is whether you take the time to write down the character’s actions in a chapter plan before you begin writing, or just launch into the story.
Just what do you mean?
Okay, so the character-driven method of writing stories is deceptively simple. Let’s break it down.
The first and most important element are the characters. Characters make or break fiction, and the most beloved books and the most derided are generally both judged as such based on the strength of the characterization. The trick is to make them seem real, relatable, and consistent.
Gore Vidal argues that every writer has, in their head, a troupe of maybe ten or fifteen characters, and each book involves taking those characters, giving them costumes in the form of their backstories, and having them play the roles you write for them.
“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. … I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.”
It sounds almost counter-productive, but as a writer I find this a very powerful tool. My ‘troupe’ of characters often take inspiration from real people in my life, and they can generally be summed up as a single sentence, with a “who they are” and “why they’re like that.”
“Why they’re like that” is the most important part – because everybody in the world acts the way they do for a reason. Everybody in the world has a transparent motivation, and a hidden one; and the most memorable characters are the ones whose motivations resonate with people. One of the ironies of being a reader is that we tend to judge literary characters less than real people, because we see what motivates them to do the things they do on the page.
“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.” ― G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America
Every character is the way they are because of what happened to them, and they do the things they do because of what they want to achieve. If we take a character from our ‘troupe’ who we really feel we have an understanding of, we know how they’re going to react to situations and that makes them consistent.
If your character is vivid enough inside your head, with strong enough motivations to explain what they want and how they react to things, your story will write itself because they will act consistently with their characterization, and your job as a writer will just be to document what happens; either before the writing process as a ‘plotter’ or during as a ‘pantster.’
That’s where the second part of the process comes in – story.
Remember, story is different from plot. A plot is a road map of what will happen. A story is a documentation of what did happen. If your characters are strong enough, you won’t ‘need’ a plot – your ‘plot plan’ is simply planning out the progression of the journey your characters will take you on as they react to things the way real people would.
In fact, to do the opposite and come up with a ‘plot’ first almost makes it like a script, and for a book to seem real you can’t give your characters a script to read. That’s just naturally inauthentic.
To create a story, you need to simply take your cast of characters and make something happen to them – just like my father said was the crux of a good science fiction story. Take ordinary people – even if the people are amazing, they must be ‘ordinary’ in that they must be believable. Then make something extraordinary happen to them.
Once you do that – you just write down what they do in reaction to that extraordinary event.
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” ― William Faulkner
Once you understand the power of this technique, you’ve tapped into an almost unlimited source of story ideas. Every single day, you’re presented with simple ideas that could generate an entire novel if they ‘happened’ to the right cast of characters. If you haven’t got characters in your head, you could even borrow real people for story ideas – I do it all of the time.
For example, what if my real life bad-ass friend, who’s a single mother struggling to support her toddler, works two jobs to pay the bills, and goes to college so she won’t always be earning minimum wage, won the lottery?
Sounds great, right? A dream come true for her?
But, as a writer, I immediately wonder what her ‘baby daddy’ would think about that, and whether he’d try and get in on her new found wealth. How would her parents react? Would she still go to school? What would her friends do? Would she still hang out with the same people if she was so wealthy, and they weren’t?
There are a million questions, and a million narrative threads to untangle.
If you’re a ‘plotter’ you think through these scenarios beforehand, pick which ones work best, and use that to create your plot plan.
If you’re a ‘pantster’, you just sit down in front of the keyboard and start writing.
But ultimately, the root of the story remains the same regardless of the method you use to chronicle it. You just think about a simple scenario, using characters you already know well enough to guess how they’d react – in my case often based on real people – and a story can’t help but write itself inside your head. It might not even be one you’d want to write about, but that’s the essence of storytelling. You take vivid characters – and none are so vivid as real people – and throw a situation in front of them and let them react to it the way they would. That’s the essence of storytelling.
“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.” ― Joss Whedon
And, as a writer, the coolest part is that you don’t always KNOW where that story will take you. As you write about characters – even characters who you think you know well – they will reveal different sides of themselves to you, which you’d never appreciated before.
“We never end up with the book we began writing. Characters twist it and turn it until they get the life that is perfect for them. A good writer won’t waste their time arguing with the characters they create…It is almost always a waste of time and people tend to stare when you do!” ― C.K. Webb
But to me, that’s the essence of being a good writer. If you plot a story out – go step-by-step with a plan of what’s ‘supposed’ to happen – it comes across as inauthentic, and you can normally tell as much because writer’s block will hit you as you struggle to make characters say or do things that are incongruent with their real motivations or experiences.
If you just concoct a single extraordinary circumstance, and present it to vivid characters, they’ll write the plot for you; and you can sit back and transcribe it, going on a journey that’s almost as fresh and vivid as the one your readers will take.
And where do you come up with those ‘extraordinary circumstances’? Well, to me that’s the other essence of being a good writer; they’re all around you. Writers are, at their core, simply people who can’t help but ask themselves the question: “What would result if that happened?”
And those ideas can come from anywhere. It’s just a question of which ones you write about.
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” – Orson Scott Card
Whenever I write articles for the Hidden Gems blog, I’m always left wondering: “Is this really obvious? Does everybody know this?” But, fortunately, I generally get enough feedback to make me believe that some people haven’t thought about this before.
I’ll wrap up by challenging you to consider this story-generating system, and here’s a great place to start: On Reddit, where they have a whole subreddit dedicated to story prompts.
This one appealed to me: The man smiles, and puts a single vial filled with a swirling blue gas into the pot as his ante. “A soul,” he sneers. You aren’t exactly sure which one of your friends invited him, but Friday Night Poker just got significantly more interesting.
Now, just imagine you and three of your friends sitting around a poker table when that happens. How would they react? One of your friends would roll their eyes and say: “Don’t be so ridiculous!” Another might get seriously frightened. The host’s Catholic girlfriend might freak out because of her religious beliefs. How would you, personally, go about proving or disproving that this was a ‘real’ soul. Who DID invite this person? I know which of my friends it would be!
If you’re anything like me, lines of dialogue are already shooting through your head – scenarios are already coming to life in your imagination. That’s the magic of working with good characters (or even real people) because they do the story writing for you. You just have to write down what happens.
As you become more successful and prolific with writing, this strategy becomes more and more useful. I’d love to know your thoughts on the value of it (or lack thereof) so let me know in the comments section below!