Monday, July 02, 2012

Going Both Ways: Outlines for Plot, Pantser for Character

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’m an outliner all the way when it comes to crafting the plots in my stories. But for my character arcs, I’m a total pantser. I always know where my characters are going, but rarely how they’ll get there.

To me, this is the best of both worlds, especially since I write science fiction and fantasy, which tends to be fairly plot-focused. I can devote as much time as I need to prepping my story framework, then turn my characters loose and see what happens. Not only does it allow me to spend more time developing those characters as I write, it keeps the story fresh for me. I never know how things are going to unfold.

Sometimes this does get me into trouble, but that’s half the fun. In the third book of my fantasy, Darkfall, I knew my protagonist Nya had to somehow become the leader of a rebellion. The problem? It didn’t seem plausible for a 15-year-old-girl to find herself in such a position of power and authority. Being part of a rebellion, sure, but leading it? How could I make that plausible?

The plot needed this, so I took a hard look at Nya and tried to figure out what she would do in this situation. The answer was pretty easy—I told her what to do and turned her loose. She’d figure out how to get there.

For three books, Nya has always done what she felt was right to protect those she loves. She’s also quick to jump into trouble, and has one or two hot-button issues that steal all reason right out of her head. So…

Nya’s loved ones in trouble + hot-button issue = Nya acting without thinking.

If she had to end up leading a rebellion, she just had to find herself in a situation that made her act without thinking to save those she loves. I had to put the pressure on her and see how long it took her to crack and try to take over. Because she would do that eventually, that’s who she is. She’s learned to rely on no one but herself.

Naturally, I finagled a little with the meaning of “leader” to fit the story better and still fulfill my plot vision. Nya as a general in an army didn’t work, but she could very easily be the driving force behind a rebellion, or be the inspiration for one. And considering how much Nya hates to be the center of attention, putting her in the spotlight created a lot of writing fun for me.

If you’re an outlining panster, (or think you might be) here are some tips on crafting a story with the best of both worlds:

1. Outliner: Pick a few goals for your characters that set the direction you want the story to go in. That’ll give you a framework in which to write.

Pantser: Think about the motives or emotional states of your characters and why they might go after those goals. How a character feels about something will determine how they approach a problem or how they might go about getting what they want.

2. Outliner: Look for the big turning points in the story. Where do your characters need to be when those moments happen? Where do they need to be going after that?

Look at where your character has come from, who they are at that point in the story, and who they might become in the near future. How might their past affect how they act? What past fears might be affected (or affect) what’s to come in the plot?

3. Outliner: What are the major surprises in the story? The big reveals or secrets? When are they revealed?

Pantser: How blindsided might your characters be? Do they spot the hints or do they miss them? How do they react to the surprises? Is there anything in their past that can shake things up even further?

For the pantser half, most of these things you probably won’t know until you get there, but they’re fun things to think about as you write or after you’ve gotten that first rough draft down on paper. And one last extra outliner/panster tip:

4. Keep asking yourself how your character feels about what’s going on.
Where are they emotionally and mental when they start a scene? Where are they during the scene? Where do they end up at the end of the scene, and how does that affect their choices moving on? You might be following the plot, but it’ll help you develop rich characters to go with that plot.

If you like a little structure to keep you on track, but relish the discovery of an unfolding story, a combo outline/pantser style might be for you.

What’s your style? Why does that style appeal to you? Is there anything about it you’d like to change?

Originally posted at The Pen and Parchment


  1. I'm a panster all the way, and it's not a style I can change. I can't connect my creativity to an outline at all. The best I can hope for is to get the characters named -- more or less, since it'll change -- before I start.

  2. Ah, someone who finally understands my writing style. (Why didn't I think of it sooner?)

    I've always outlined my plots, but my characters have always come to me fully formed. I've always had trouble coming up with plots for them (Regency romance) that haven't been done to death. Outlining has been a true book saver.

  3. This matches me exactly! My character arcs come as the plot unfolds--and I've found an excel chart does nicely to fit these kinds of things into the overall plot outline. My protag, (also fifteen) will also be required to lead a rebellion--but I'm going to have the rebels be suspicious of her ability to lead them at first, to make things more plausible.

  4. I like to plot out the main points and try to think of twists in the plot that I'll want to show. I have a general character arc in mind, but then I have to be a panster for most of the scenes. At least I'm doing that now. We'll see how it goes. Thanks for all the suggestions on what to think about.

  5. Great tips. And of course for me this would involve creating a spreadsheet to keep track of things. Oh how I love Excel.

  6. Ooh, I love this combination! Thanks for the great tips. I'm a plotter, but I definitely leave wiggle room for changes.

  7. I don't like planning much at all because to me, writing is about that exploration into the creative parts in your mind, and personally, I want to be surprised in my works. Too much planning is like knowing what happens in a movie before you watch it. Sure, this may mean editing maybe a lot harder then it needs to be, but I think the creative first draft needs to be completely unbound for the magic to happen.

  8. Linda, I'm amazed by you pantsers :) I've tried it a few times and I always end up with a mess. I don't have your randomness skill.

    Anne, took me a while, too. I'm the opposite, I usually get the plots, then I have to see what the characters do to flesh them out.

    Writer Librarian, very cool. I've been fiddling with Excel sheets a little more on this last book. I've found them helpful for timelines.

    Natalie, most welcome. I think every time I wrote a novel I learn something new about my process. I'm not sure the learning ever stops. But that's half the fun, right?

    Heather, I use it a little. Great organization tool.

    Julie, I've found it quite fun.

    Dystopian Novels, it seems like it's split down the middle. I've heard many writers say that and I admire you guys for being able to wade in without a plan :)

  9. I am a pantster who is finally appreciating the need for a little structure. I might not start with an outline, but when I get to about a third to halfway through a novel, I try to stop and assess where I'm going. When I come up with a general outline of where I'm going, I still feel the freedom to go in a different direction once I start writing again.

  10. Wow! What a great way to block it out for both right and left sides of the brain. Love it!

  11. Lin, what I like about structure is you can use as little or as much as you want. Whatever works for you. I veer off mine when the story takes me elsewhere, too. Nice to allow for the subconscious to work in a first draft.

    Amelia, thanks! I've tried a lot of things, but this works best for me.

  12. Flip it around for me. I will do a character outline rather than do an outline for my book (though it is not always on paper). I try to get to know my characters before I start writing, because my characters' characters drive their stories. Once I feel like I know them (and have a general idea of their stories), I can write freely.

  13. Rebecca, ooo I love that a character outline. Do you just do a character study or is it more like the outline for the character arc?

  14. This is really helpful to pass on to someone who want to write with me but does not get my style especially how I braindump outline...