Listening to Your Characters

Hi SE Readers. Joan here today on this last week of January. The holidays are behind us. We’ve had time to make and break New Year’s resolutions. It’s time to get back to some serious writing. (Talking to myself with that last sentence.)

In the publishing world, you’ve probably heard there are two types of authors—plotters and pansters.

Plotters take time to delve deeply into their story before they write the first word. Many plan meticulous outlines. They know what will happen in chapter one as well as the final chapter. Some of them create detailed character sketches, conduct copious amounts of research, and develop the setting down to exact details.

Pansters, on the other hand, don’t plan at all. They may have a general idea such as, “I’m going to write a murder mystery that isn’t solved until twenty years after the fact.” A few character names and a basic setting are all they need to get started. A panster opens his or her writing software and begins to write without worrying about the details.

True plotters swear by their methods and can’t fathom writing a novel any other way. I once listened to a podcast by a well-known author who spoke about plotting and outlining. She stated it took her about nine months to plot a book and complete the outline. The actual writing took much less time.

During the question and answer session, I mentioned that I had completed about seventy-five percent of my first novel without outlining and ask for her suggestion on how to finish it. Her answer? Go back and write from scratch. She couldn’t imagine me being able to finish it otherwise and was even apologetic that I had gotten so far and would have to start over. I didn’t follow her advice.

Pansters love the thrill of writing by the seat of their pants. They allow the story to take them down the path to completion. Unexpected twists and turns are sure to happen. New characters plop into the story without warning. Unplanned events take place, which are often in direct contrast to what the writer intended. Because of this, pansters often have to rewrite or revise entire sections and chapters.

Most writers fall into one of these two categories. However, there is a third type of writer that I refer to as a Planster. I’m one of those.

I start with an idea and complete a simple outline. Unseen Motives is the first book of my Driscoll Lake Series, which I originally planned to be a stand-alone novel. I had a general idea for the plot: A young woman returns to her hometown twenty years after the suicide death of her father. While there, she discovers evidence he might not have killed himself and sets out to find the murderer.

I knew the identity of the killer and had ideas about certain events I wanted to happen. I began to develop my characters, one of whom who would know the real killer. Brian Nichols used that information to blackmail the antagonist into paying for his college education and helping him obtain a prominent position in a local law firm.

However, when I began to write his first scene, Brian began to speak to me. “I’m not a bad guy. I may be a bit of a rebel, but I’m not evil.”

No matter how hard I tried, the character wouldn’t allow me to continue. I made some quick changes, created two additional characters to fulfill that role, and allowed Brian to be one of the good guys. Even still, he wouldn’t let go. “I have a story to tell,” he said.

Hence, a sequel was born. Unknown Reasons tells Brian’s story. To date, he has been my favorite character, and it was my favorite book to write. And because I think a series must include at least three novels, I’m nearing completion of the third and final Driscoll Lake book, Unclear Purposes.

Once again, a character took me along a different path than I originally intended. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t appear somewhere in my next series.

Die-hard plotters likely can’t fathom changing things in mid-stream. Pansters can’t imagine spending months plotting and outlining. If you fall into either of these categories, and it works for you, keep going. But if you fall somewhere in between, why not listen to your characters? You might be surprised where they take you.

49 thoughts on “Listening to Your Characters

  1. Great post. I’m for sure a pantser. I either get an idea or start writing from a characters POV. I usually write flash fiction. If I outline hardcore my energy levels drop and I can’t think straight. It’s interesting how there are different ways we develop stories.

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  5. Yay! I have a category now… I’m a PLANSTER! I always worried that I didn’t seem to fit into either category. I definitely start a story in more of a panster sense – an idea or a character or a scene drive the start – but then I plot continually. In fact, today I’m working on the outline for book two of my current series, and it’s a REAL plotter move – BIG outline, lots of threads etc… that said, when I’m writing it, if a new idea comes to me, or a character isn’t working then bam, it’s going to change.

    As for listening to my characters; always. I’ve saved characters’ lives, given them love interests and made them main characters because that’s what THEY wanted. Sometimes I feel like I’m a slave to THEM… and I often wonder if other writers actually fall in love with their characters. I have one from an unpublished series who is my actual heart-throb. If he turned up in my life for reals, sorry hubby, I’m off riding into the sunset with him 🙂

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  6. I think a large majority of us fall into your Plantser category, Joan. I start with a general idea and outline but cannot imagine having the patience to outline a story for months before beginning to write it. I simply don’t have that kind of discipline. However, your point about listening to your characters applies to every writer, no matter the method. Craig’s infamous storyboards fascinate me. In my first writing class (which oddly enough was a screenwriting class) we used the storyboard method and I can see where it can work in moving a story along or even in rearranging events. Great post! You made us think. Here’s to the characters and may the get what they want!!!

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    • I’m with you, Jan. I can’t imagine spending months plotting and planning a story. I have a feeling lots of things are changed during that time, so planners probably don’t differ as much as they seem. They just make all the changes ahead of time. I love Craig’s storyboarding idea – something I need to try.

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  7. I am a plantser. I plan a little, pants a little and then go back and layer a little more as I’m writing. I listen to my characters all the time. As a matter of fact, I’ll sit down and do character interviews with them. One of these fun interviews I’ll post shortly on my own blog. Do you conduct interviews with your characters to see what makes them tick?

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  9. I’m in the third category too, despite trying very hard to break my pantsing method of writing and become a plotter. I guess I made it half-way.

    I do allow my characters to speak to me, even the secondary ones. Madison Hewitt, from End of Day, was an unexpected character who developed as I wrote. She had a small role in the book. I had another MC in mind for book three, Eventide, but Madison decided she needed her story told,so she gets center stage in that one. It’s interesting how characters develop and take control. I’m all for letting them have their way, as they usually know what they’re doing! 🙂

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  10. To probably no one’s surprise, I’ve done all of this. Writing with a complete outline is bliss. I get excited and want to start, so that rarely happens. I’ve written things with no more than a vague idea. (Ready, set, go.) The pendulum is back near the middle these days. My storyboards are about things that must happen along the way, but my characters decide how and when we get there. It’s functional, allows me to start when I’m excited about the project, but still keeps the structure intact. Great post today.

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  11. I have to outline my novels. Short stories, not so much. But novels, even novellas, I have to outline.

    I’m not so rigid that I won’t veer off course when a character demands it, though. It’s those little detours that help me fill in details and develop subplots. But I always meander back to the main outline before I end up going completely off course.

    At the end of the day, I’m with you. A writer needs to do whatever works.

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    • For once we differ! LOL But not much. You just do more detailed outlines but are flexible enough to let the story breath. I do just enough of an outline to keep me from getting too far off the beaten path.


  12. Joan, it’s hard to believe that Staci and I are sisters. She is much more of a plotter than I will ever be. I am not a panster, either. I consider myself a Plotster. I do make a general, very vague outline, with some character development. If my story takes an unexpected turn, I’m not at all surprised or upset. Great post.

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  13. I started out as a die-hard pantser, but more recently have morphed into a plantser … I can’t see myself ever being a full on plotter, lol. My characters love hijacking me. Good luck with the series, Joan 🙂

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  14. I wrote my work in progress pantsing. But it’s such a mess. I’ve read it and I’m now trying to make a plan so that I can finish it. There’s so much missing. I know my characters but you ask me what they look like I have no clue. And when I sit down to write a profile blank mind. Try again next time my brain isn’t having a creative week.

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    • Jen, when I finished the first draft of Unseen Motives, it was a convoluted mess. I put it aside for almost a year before I would even touch it. I cut close to 10K words then looked for places where I was telling rather than showing and added at least that number back. I was more careful in writing the second and third books of the series.


  15. I like the third category, that’s where I fall into as well. I try to outline and plan, but the story and especially the characters have other ideas. Right now I’m writing without an outline, but I will add it later to keep track of what I’m doing soon. I had an idea but its definitely going in a direction I hadn’t planned on. So right now I’m in the taking notes stage and see where it goes for a while. Then I have to plan it all out soon. It’s an interesting process getting to the end. I enjoyed the post.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Denise. My outlines are very basic. I have an idea, the outcome, the main character’s goal (or quest) and a few important points along the way. Otherwise, I let the story and characters guide me. Good luck with your WIP.

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