Monday, July 2, 2012
Going Both Ways: Outlines for Plot, Pantser for Character
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?
Pantser: 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