A reader recently asked me this, and I have added it to my FAQs page.
Q. I’ve heard writers say “I was going to do X, but then the character did Y.” I always think, Wait, aren’t you the one who makes up what the character does?
A. Well, it may sound strange, but when we are writing fiction, the characters do “come to life” and do things the author wasn’t completely planning. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if this does not happen, then the story is not working. All the richest parts of my own stories have come about as a result of this phenomenon.
Of course, the author still has to “make up” what the character is doing in a sense, and write it down. But it seems to come from somewhere else at the same time. This is similar to what happens to actors and musicians when they talk about “being in the zone.” They still have to play the notes or say the words, and they need to be talented and to have practiced. But something more is also going on. This is the reason that ancient poets and storytellers used to invoke the Muse before embarking on their art.
I’m not sure this phenomenon is experienced by every single fiction writer. Perhaps there are some very meticulous plotters who don’t experience this and who still write perfectly good books. But this “characters coming to life” thing is definitely a part of my own process, and I’ve heard many other authors talk about it, so I know I’m not the only one.
On a related note, I’ve heard that some people write up “character sheets” before they begin drafting their novel. They come up with details about the character’s personality, back story, etc. In my case, I don’t do this kind of thing before I start drafting; instead, it’s part of the drafting process. I observe how the characters react in the situations I place them, and they reveal back story as we go. It wasn’t until after writing The Long Guest, for example, that I was able to tell that Nirri is an ESTP on the Meyers-Briggs. And MBTI typing him, by then, was just more a silly, fun exercise than a part of character development.
Fellow authors, please chime in about whether and how you have experienced this phenomenon.Do you count on your characters coming to life during the drafting or outlining process? Or is it something that occasionally happens, and you enjoy, but that you can get through a novel without? Has a character ever become so recalcitrant that you had to re-work your entire plot?
Ben Shapiro interviews an eclectic grab bag of people each week on his Sunday Special. (Their main common factor is that they were willing to come on and be interviewed by him.) The interview embedded below is my favorite of all the ones he’s done so far. It’s super long, but if you are interested in the fiction industry or the writing process or the sci-fi and fantasy genres or identity politics or religion, then it will be worth your while.
Orson Scott Card is the author of the super popular sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. I tried to read this novel when I was way too young and I did not get all the way through it. It was hard for me to keep in mind that Ender and his co-trainees were kids when in some ways they acted like geniuses.
Card is also a Mormon, or LDS (Latter-Day Saint) as many of them prefer to be called. This gives him a unique perspective on religion, specifically on what it’s like to be misunderstood as a religious person.
AT 4:18, Card clears up what exactly counts as sci-fi versus fantasy: “The usual is that science fiction is stuff that has not happened but is possible, and fantasy is stuff that doesn’t happen and isn’t actually possible but we can imagine it. And that almost works except for the fact that it’s considered science fiction if you do things like faster-than-light travel or time travel. And those can’t happen. Time travel especially, because the string of causality is unbreakable. … So it’s arguable. But I learned the practical definition right away. The covers of fantasy books have trees. The covers of science fiction books have sheet metal with rivets. So it’s rivets versus trees. If your story is illustratable with rivets then it’s sci-fi, and if it needs trees to be effective, then it’s fantasy.” (N.b.: This is why my books are fantasy even though they feature no wizards.)
11:35 On the fact that fantasy magic systems have rules too: “You can’t just throw magic on the page and make it fantasy. You have to make it fantasy that would pass muster with a science fiction writer, because that’s who’s writing fantasy now.”
At 15:00, he addresses Pantsing versus Plotting: “I try to think ahead. Mostly milieu development. Then I’ll think of obligatory scenes, things that have to happen. And I’ll have to then set up those scenes so that they mean something. So there’s some planning that goes into it. I know writers who think like screenwriters, and their thought is all on the [outline]. I can’t do that, because anything I wrote for anything after chapter two is going to be discarded as soon as I find out what’s going on in chapter one. The process is pretty flexible, because by the time I’m nearing the end of any novel, the outline is now a relic … And I’ve seen, for example, an early novel by Dean Koontz, where it was obvious to me that after developing an amazing cast of characters that readers cared about, he caught up with the point in the outline where they all go into an alien spaceship together, and at that point he was just following the outline and it didn’t matter who any of the characters were.” (N.b.: Card’s method is plantsing, and it is the method I use as well. )
At 37:00, he starts talking about religions in fiction: “If you are going to create a character that has an existing religion, you have a responsibility to make it plausible. In America, we have two generic religions. If you need a hierarchical religion, you use Catholic. If you need a congregational religion, you use generic-Protestant-but-really-Baptist. Those religions are available and we all have some experience with them by watching movies. Jewish, not so much. I would feel a great deal of trepidation making a character of mine Jewish, especially orthodox, because I’ve known enough orthodox Jews to know how rigorous the demands are, what has to be kept in your head all the time. And I do that as a Mormon. I know all of our rules by heart, I don’t even have to think about them any more. But whenever I watch somebody’s fictional treatment of Mormonism, no one ever gets it right. No one even comes close. Getting somebody else’s religion wrong is a terrible faux pas.”
41:56: “That’s one of my minor messages: people have religion, and the fiction writer who retreats from that is cheating himself and his readers.”
43:51: “There are smart people in Hollywood. There are good people in Hollywood. They just don’t have the power to greenlight a film.”
At 52:00, he starts talking about the move towards identity politics in sci-fi: “And many of them, whom I know, are people who are simply writing their conscience. But their conscience is ill-informed.”
55:20 and following, on race: “When every white person in America knows that they are labelled as racist, that means why keep trying? Because no matter what you do, you are going to be labelled as white privileged and as racist. … But I know that now, all white people are getting more and more nervous that no matter what they say, it’s going to be turned on them and used to call them the ugly name racist. And that is pretty much the ugliest name that we have in our vocabulary right now. If you’re looking for your Tourette’s list of words that you should not speak, words which will wound, the f-word is way way low on the list. We are used to the f-word, we hear it all the time. Compared to racist. Wow! That’s serious. That’s savage.”
“Yeah maybe,” Heather said. “I think we’re speculating. It seems like whenever we have a conversation like this, it’s almost a guarantee that it’s not how things are going to happen. Like the writers of our lives are trying to be intentionally unpredictable.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Ace said. “It does seem uncanny how true that is. So, if you were a writer and you wanted to mislead your readers so the story would be filled with unexpected twists, would you write your basic story with an outline and then go back and insert conversations like this one to intentionally mislead the readers or would you write the book as you go and change the plot as the characters figured out what’s going on?”
“Neither,” said Heather. “I would know all the characters, know their personalities and abilities, then throw it all together and see what happens. Even I would be surprised at how the events play out.”
“I think that would make for a completely chaotic story,” Ace considered. “I suppose if the characters were likable or made a lot of smart remarks, people might read it anyway even if it did seem like the author had no idea where the story was going.”
“I would totally put this conversation in the book,” Heather said.
A month ago, I wrote a post about the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness). In the comments, Katie Jane Gallagher suggested that an author could use the Big Five to plan out their characters’ personalities. I replied that this might work for some people, but I was doubtful my characters would co-operate with being assigned a personality beforehand.
I still think it would be difficult to assign, in a fixed way, all five of your character’s traits before you begin writing. But I have thought of a trope that relies heavily on the use of character traits: the odd couple.
The Source of the phrase “The Odd Couple”
The Odd Couple was a 1968 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Then there was a 1970 – 1975 TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.
Also, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played the same odd couple in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s original play.
In all of the versions, the premise is that two men are living together because each has been kicked out by their wives: one for being such a perfectionist, the other for being such a slob. High jinks follow.
How odd couple stories use Big Five traits
As you can immediately see, the odd couple trope relies on selecting one Big Five personality trait (in this case, Conscientiousness) and throwing together two people who are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to that trait.
This is much more manageable than trying to run down all five traits for each of your characters before beginning to plot.
Of course, when you start to develop the story, other traits will come along too. In this story, the conscientious character (Lemmon/Randall/Broderick) is also high on Neuroticism. Interestingly, it is he, with his extreme conscientiousness, who is portrayed as being the harder person to live with. The slobby person is portrayed as more normal. That is not what I expected when I set out to research the show, because in real life, slobby people can be just as hard to live with, especially if they are low in Agreeableness, for example.
In fact, some shows will dispense with the “couple” part of the odd couple and just have the gimmick revolve around one person’s extreme traits. Monk springs to mind, in which the detective’s OCD about cleanliness is so incapacitating that he must have a handler with him at all times … but his attention to detail also makes him an excellent detective.
Odd Couples Everywhere!
Once you start looking for odd couples in film and literature, it seems to be a trope that is used to enrich all kinds of stories. You find odd couple cop partners, odd couple road trips, and (ubiquitously) odd couples in rom-coms. Often odd-couple stories are funny, but they can appear in dramas as well, such as Thelma and Louise, or Charlie and Raymond in Rain Man. Whether comedy or drama (but especially in drama), one or both characters are supposed to be transformed in some way by their forced relationship with their polar opposite.
In my own first book, The Long Guest, there is a bit of an odd couple dynamic going on between Enmer and Nimri. Enmer reacts to the demise of civilization by becoming hyper-responsible as he tries to care for his extended family. Nimri, who at the beginning of the book is selfish and has no one to care for, honestly doesn’t care if he himself lives or dies. The two are forced into proximity by the dynamics of the survival situation (and by Enmer’s mother, Zillah), and while they never resolve their differences, the inherent conflict between them drives much of the action in the book.
So … what do you think? Do you like odd couple stories? Are you a member of an odd couple? Perhaps more intensely, now during quarantine? Have odd couple stories lost their appeal? What are some of your favorite odd couples from film or literature?
Orual is a princess, but she’s anything but spoiled. She is strikingly ugly, and her father treats his daughters with the same thoughtless cruelty with which he rules his pagan kingdom. Orual eventually learns to stand up to her father, but she’s terrified of the royal priest, who wears a bird’s head on his chest, and of the deity he serves, a spooky, faceless mother-goddess.
Orual’s younger half-sister Psyche
is kind and beautiful, and Orual adores her.
As Psyche grows older, the two girls prove to be best friends. But everything changes when Psyche is offered
as a sacrifice to the son of the mother-goddess, who lives on the haunted
mountain … and she actually seems happy about it.
We Have Faces is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, seen from
the point of view of Psyche’s supposedly jealous and evil older sisters. Like me, you will probably pick it up because
when you see the words “an ugly princess and a beautiful princess,” you
immediately go into the book expecting to identify with the ugly one. And you do.
But see whether, by the end, you don’t identify with Psyche as well.
This book is a perfect addition to
the genre of novels that write ancient pagans sympathetically, but look at
their beliefs with a critical eye.
That’s what I try to do in my books.
Mine were inspired in part by ‘Till
We Have Faces, but they will never rise to its level.
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1878)
If you read the back of the book,
you will be told that it is the story of Anna, a beautiful upper-class Russian
woman (pre-Revolution) who has an extramarital affair and is eventually
destroyed by society’s judgment on her sexual freedom. Well, not quite. For one thing, Anna is destroyed by the
affair itself more than by the social condemnation. For another thing, Anna is
only half of the novel.
The other half is about Levin, a
wealthy young farmer who has a spiritual crisis and loses, then regains, the
girl he loves. His long, slow upward
trajectory is the flip side of Anna’s long, slow downward one.
The writing in this novel is
amazing (assuming that you get a good translation). The psychology is beautiful. It’s also an example of a successful
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
This book was first published in
1678. The language, therefore, is more
modern than Shakespeare, slightly less modern than Jane Austen, but just as
elegant and succinct as either one.
It is an allegory of one man’s
spiritual journey. It is anything but
Take the incident where Giant
Despair throws Christian and Hopeful into the dungeon in Doubting Castle. He beats them, he starves them, he tells them
they will never get out. It is
Christian’s fault they are there (he led them on a shortcut across the giant’s
lands), and he immediately begins to blame himself and apologize to
Hopeful. The giant encourages the two
men to kill themselves and even provides them with a variety of means to do
so. He also shows them the skulls of
past prisoners to emphasize that their fate is sealed.
All in all, if you have ever been
through depression (your own or a loved one’s), you will recognize this as a
precise description of the effects it has upon mind and body. This giant and his wife literally sit up at
night thinking of ways to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.
When the two prisoners finally make their escape, the giant begins to chase them. But when he comes out into the sunlight, he falls into an epileptic type of fit.
The Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie (1930s through 1960s)
Hercule Poirot is the more famous
of Christie’s sleuths, but my favorite is Miss Marple. All the other characters, being British,
consistently underestimate Poirot because he a foreigner. All the younger and more worldly characters
underestimate Miss Marple because she is an old maid who has lived in a village
all her life. They think she is likely
to be naïve and narrow in her views and experience. In fact, Miss Marple has seen quite a lot of
human nature in her 60+ years of life. As
she points out, her village may look as stagnant and sleepy as a pond, but like
a pond, is it actually alive with all kinds of vicious microscopic creatures.
Miss Marple’s method of crime
detection is to rely on her knowledge of human nature. People she meets remind her of other people
that she has once known. She can
recognize the essence of their character and even make guesses about what they
will do based on these past people’s behavior.
She never makes a point directly; her method is usually to tell a little
story about someone she once knew and then surprisingly tie it to the present
situation. Her method of thinking about
crimes is a bit more intuitive than Poirot’s.
Rather than crunching data, she recognizes stories. You could say that Poirot is a plotter and
Marple a pantser. But they both get
their man in the end.
Miss Marple is also aided by her
fantastic British manners. She is an
amazingly good listener. She is
excellent at drawing people out. People
cannot lie all the time; if you let them talk long enough, eventually they will
tell you the truth.
Miss Marple might be a little old
lady, but she is dangerous to criminals.
In one book, she wraps a pink scarf around her head before she goes out
and then introduces herself to the murderer as “Nemesis.”
Of course you doubt yourself. All grown people do. In fact, I don’t entirely trust you if you don’t.
Here is the latest thing that made me doubt myself. It starts out with Jordan Peterson classroom footage, but ignore that. At 9:30, Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson start discussing archetypes in movies. At about 13:15, Peterson says, “The artist shouldn’t be able exactly to say what it is he’s doing.”
That gave me pause. Sure, I’m a pantser, but this isn’t about pantsing versus plotting. It’s about whether you are primarily telling a story, or primarily illustrating an idea. And anyone, plotter or pantser, can do either. This made me ask myself, I am too heavy on theme? Are any of my characters behaving less like people and more like embodiments of an idea that I love or hate? Good questions to ask.
What have you doubted lately and how are you dealing with it?
If you hang around writerly sorts, you will hear them talking about plotting and pantsing. Plotting means you plan out your entire novel before starting to write it. You make an outline. You decide what’s going to happen chapter by chapter. Obviously, you do any necessary research before starting to write. The term pantsing comes from the phrase “fly by the seat of your pants.” With pantsing, you might have done some research and you might have a general idea where the story is going to go. But you don’t outline. You just dive in, let the story and characters take over, and record what you see happening. You are just along for the ride, like the lovely lady above on the right side of the picture.
Both methods have their advocates. Both methods even have a book which will tell you how to do the method. I have read neither of these books, but have heard them recommended by other authors. For pantsing, there is Writing Into the Dark, by Dean Wesley Smith; and for plotting, there is Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker. (How can you not love that title?)
There’s No Right Way, but This Is the Right Way
Perhaps anyone can learn to plot … or to pants. Nevertheless, I think that a strong preference for one or the other is a consequence of the way a person’s brain is wired. This explains why people’s reaction when they hear about the other method (whichever the other method is), tends to be something like, “You mean there are people who live this way?”
Pantsers, for example, tend to sound as if they think pantsing is inherently spiritual. It’s about sensitivity to your characters; it’s about trusting your subconscious and the story itself. It’s about listening to reality, for crying out loud! Writers are people who listen! They don’t impose!
I am thinking here of two of my favorite writers: Anne Lamott and Stephen King. I love Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, and King’s On Writing. Bird by Bird does contain some passages that make it sound (unintentionally, I am sure) as if writers are more mystical or wise or something than the general population. King, meanwhile, believes strongly that you have to let your characters lead. He never plots; he thinks of an intriguing or difficult situation, puts his character in it, and then sits back and lets it play out. Because he doesn’t plan a rescue for his characters, horror usually follows.
I haven’t read as much writing advice by plotters, so I’m not as familiar with their besetting misconceptions. It seems to me, based on little comments that I have seen here and there based on a “how to write a novel” book, written by an editor, that I read many years ago, that plotters have the impression that if you don’t outline, you won’t have a good plot. Nothing will happen in your story. As one person put it, no amount of revision can make a book good if it was a weak story to begin with.
In short, and to make a huge generalization that I will no doubt regret later, diehard pantsers tend to feel that plotting is immoral, whereas diehard plotters tend to feel that pantsing is incompetent.
But Is There Such a Thing as “Pure” Plotting or “Pure” Pantsing?
I can only speak from the pantsing side (in case you haven’t guessed). I am an incurable pantser. But this doesn’t mean I never do any research or plan anything out. When at the writing desk, I tend to look more like the gal on the left. I don’t outline, but to keep things consistent I am forced to make timelines, name and age charts, and so on. I keep research notes and maps handy. It’s just that these things are following the story, not preceding it.
In the same way, I imagine that even those who thoroughly plot spend time listening to their characters so that the emotions ring true. Who knows, perhaps they even change their outline from time to time in response to a character’s wishes or the changing currents of the story.
So the supposed down side of each of these methods is mitigated by the fact that writing is an iterative process and that writers mix in elements from each.
Why Am I A Pantser?
I just am. I am constitutionally unable to make a book outline first and then have that outline actually be the way the story goes.
I might have a general idea of what I think is going to happen (and sometimes it does). But half the time, by the time we get there, things don’t go down that way. The characters have been changed by their experiences and they don’t react the way I expected. Or, they react much more strongly than I expected and do some fool thing that the story then has to accommodate.
This doesn’t make me more spiritual or, God forbid, smarter than the plotters. If anything, it might be the reverse. When my story surprises me, it’s because my subconscious is working out plot points that my better organized fellows are able to do intentionally, with their conscious brains. It may be true that plotting results in twistier, more intricate plots. I’d do it if I could, but I can’t.
In fact, I’m not even able to write a non-fiction piece from an outline. If an outline is required, I do some discovery drafts, let the structure emerge, and then outline it afterward. That’s how pantsy I am.
Luckily, Stephen King is there to remind me that it is possible to be a competent and prolific writer by pantsing.
Now, how about you? Even if you don’t write novels, I’ll bet you plot or pants your way through life. And I’ll bet that whichever you do, the other way seems just wrong.
Also, when you are reading a book can you tell which kind of writer the author is?