It’s one of those inane questions every fiction writer is asked sooner or later: “Are you a pantser or a plotter?”
Pantsers, the stereotype goes, are those who like to “fly by the seat of their pants.” They’re spontaneous, fun, and none too keen on commitment. Pantsers are those tortuous people who like to deposit hapless characters into a world of their own creation and see what happens.
Plotters plot. Everything. They make outlines, they write character sketches, they keep index card files and sticky notes and color-coded notebooks around at all times. Their backstories have backstories. They know everything that is going to happen, and when, and why, and they’ll be waiting with cookies. They are the domestic divas of the writing world.
Then there are those who don’t really fit into either category. Sometimes dubbed “plantsers,” we are the ones who like to have a game plan but aren’t overly rigid about it. We don’t like to get in the car until we know where we are going and can confirm we’ve chosen the right shoes, but we’re cool with coming home whenever. Also, we aren’t big on being labeled.
Although they usually refer to creative technique, these terms, for me, more accurately describe the ways in which writers’ dominant personalities drive their craft. You don’t have to be a writer to be a pantser–a fun-loving free spirit who likes to go with the flow–or a plotter–Martha Stewart on steroids, before that whole prison thing. Recently I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I was now living with two unreformed pantsers. This far into a decade-long relationship, my partner mostly tolerates my incessant requests for upcoming plans with a reasonable humor. Actually making a reservation or committing to a travel itinerary, however, invariably falls to me. Having an ESL student at home who did not understand the concept of schedules and advance notice nearly drove me insane before we got to the root of the problem. Now
There’s a much simpler way to understand the myriad ways authors approach novel writing, though. It’s all about starting points.
I have read The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray’s classic how-to novel-writing guide, often enough to permanently dog-ear its soft cover. It’s a straightforward step-by-step instruction manual on how to complete a novel draft during one’s typical off-hours over the course of a year. It’s well-written, informative, and filled with literary examples. It’s also never worked for me.
It’s taken me years to reach the conclusion that the problem isn’t Ray’s book, it’s that the chapter sequence is out of order for a writer like me. Ray’s overriding technique is character-driven: He starts by sketching characters, getting to know each one of them intimately. Ray’s overriding concern is understanding each character’s desires and fragilities. Only once he has pages and pages of backstory and descriptive detail does he begin placing them in scenes, and, after loads of scene-building, he moves on to plot. It obviously works for him; he and plenty of similar writers have the portfolios to prove it.
Sorry, gang, that’s just not how I roll. I’m a journalist. I write like one. I am a story-driven writer.
Reporters have to defend their stories in pitch meetings, often before they ever set pen to paper. A seasoned editor wants to know one thing: “Who cares?” If the story isn’t compelling and timely, it gets spiked. If we don’t start with the details of story, we may never get around to selecting all the people we want to use to help tell it.
In my writing world, characters exist for storytelling purposes. I’m writing to make a point, to tell a specific story, and I cast characters based on their ability to help move that story along. Their dreams, goals, backstories, motivations are secondary. We discover those things as the narrative unfolds, but only if they add richness to the story itself.
A character-driven novelist uses the wants and needs of his or her assembled cast of characters to determine what the story will be and where it will go. A story-driven novelist starts by deciding what story he or she wants to tell, then uses that information to choose which characters need to be written.
Which one are you?