A common frustration for Pantsers is being told that the way they write is “wrong” and what they should do instead is plan more so their first draft will hold together better. This happens because Plotters are focused on ensuring their first draft is structurally sound so revising will be easier. They don’t realize Pantsers have a different goal than they do—to write a discovery draft which allows them to get to know their characters organically. This lets them discover their character’s needs, goals, and the story by letting imagination and intuition to lead the way.
Is one method better than the other? Yes.
Which one that is depends on you though--you are an individual with your own process. Plot and outline if you like. Pants your way through a discovery draft if that works better for you. Or try a bit of both. Basically, if it works for you, do it. But if you find yourself struggling, don’t be afraid to experiment with other ways to create.
In my case, I used to pants exclusively but I grew frustrated because I couldn’t always nail down what was motivating my character and so it was hard for me to choose story events that would reinforce what they wanted, needed, and were afraid of. I began studying story structure and character arc and the value of knowing structure resonated with me. Now I do more planning and because I adapted, writing is even more enjoyable for me.
The only time our chosen creative process can limits us is if we close our minds to other ideas because of pride or principle alone.
Being open to ideas is how we grow, and Pantsers & Plotters can learn from one another. Pantsers may not want to outline but understanding story structure helps them develop their intuition, resulting in stronger drafts. And plotters who experiment with freewriting will strengthen their ability to write fresh premises and unique characters.
One issue I sometimes see with Pantsers is a wariness to use tools that focus on planning and organizing. They worry it will suck the creativity out of the discovery draft. Almost any tool can be adapted to be used by Pantsers though and this can really help them when they hit the revision trail. I’d like to demonstrate how with One Stop’s Character Builder.
Some of you know I build tools at One Stop for Writers with my partners in crime, Becca Puglisi and Lee Powell but you may not realize everything we create is for Pantsers and Planners. The Character Builder is by far the most powerful tools we’ve created, taking all the character description we’ve created over a decade (on character traits, emotions, emotional wounds, skills & talents, fears, motivations, physical attributes, and more) and combining it so writers can cherry pick whatever ideas they need for a character. The long and short is you can plan a highly detailed character much faster. Even better, the tool has built-in intelligence and will pull together certain pieces of information details you’ve brainstormed to show you what the character’s arc is in the story. GREAT for planners, right? But how the heck can a Pantser use it?
Well, let me show you.
Before sitting down to write, most Pantsers know a few details about their main character. In my case, I’d typically know what my character looked like, get a sense of their voice (which gave me an idea of their personality traits), and I might know their past emotional wound. The rest I’d uncover during the discovery draft.
This is the Character Builder. As you can see that while I could go through every tab and create a full character in the brainstorming stage, I don’t have to. Instead I can move around and fill in a detail here or there (like the character’s physical appearance and their wound) and leave other sections alone. But notice the area outlined in red? Each Tab (BACKSTORY, PERSONALITY, etc.) has an area just for Pantsers, where they can jot down ideas rather than do that deep dive.
So, I can leave my ideas if I want. A few words for now about Paul’s behavior, or his personality, just to keep my ideas organized.
Discovery draft writing is a lot of fun. You’ll write, directed by intuition…and then it happens: an epiphany! You realize something about your character that you didn’t know before. For example, I knew my character Paul’s wound was that his wife left him after realizing she was gay. It messed him up bad as you can imagine and made him not want to lose his heart to someone again. I wanted this story to be about Paul moving on. But how? When? With who?
Outside my office window, a motorcyclist roared past on the highway and I realized something: Paul was into the open road. He rode a Harley! I jumped to the Hobbies section of Paul’s profile as a flood of ideas hit, and I wrote them down:
This epiphany led to another: his love interest would be someone he’d meet on the road. I didn’t want to go with another biker—too nice and neat. I wanted something fresh, so I thought about what he’d see on a ride.
When I am on a road trip, I always notice the old graveyards. The history. The generations of stones. The overgrown grass and wildflowers and low picket fencing. What if Paul stopped at one of these and she happen to be there taking photographs for a magazine?
When the right idea explodes in your brain, it’s so magical. I immediately went to the love interest’s profile (Adina) and after I updated her image to include a camera, I added a new skill to the ones I already knew about her:
(See what I’m doing? Discovering characterization and documenting it as I go!)
When I connect the dots on something else (Adina’s past boyfriend was abusive and she’s determined to not get involved with someone again) or (Paul is quite promiscuous because one-night stands are a good way to keep women at a distance) I just add those details to the right profile and then get back to writing.
If I do this throughout my discovery draft, I end up with a pretty complete character. And remember that Character Arc Blueprint I mentioned? I can use that story structure to my advantage because it works behind the scenes. Once I finish the draft, I can look at the blueprint and see what it pinpointed for their arc journey. When I revise, I can use it to make changes that will push Paul in the direction I need him to go, and to help me see what complications I could add to challenge him on the path to his goal.
(If you are interested to see how Paul turned out using the Character Builder, go here. Not every character has to be this detailed, but this gives you an idea of how deep you can go if you need to.)
So please keep an open mind about tool, my pantsing friends. In fact, I’ve rounded up a few character-focused ones that focus on creativity to help you:
Character Creator: Create a visual of your character. Experiment, try new things, follow your imagination.
Word Storm: If you are trying to understand your character better, note all the words that you associate with your character–good and bad. Once you have your word storm, read each word. Do you get a feeling about a certain word, like there’s an idea there? Follow your intuition. And if you find yourself with writer’s block or you accidentally write the character into a corner during the discovery draft, word storm possible ways out of the situation, from logical to out-of-the-box. If this doesn’t work, go backward in your draft and find the last scene you feel solid about. Word storm ideas on where the plot could go from that point.
Timelines: You can use this tool to explore a character’s backstory, to track events as they happen in your discovery draft, to capture a sequence of places the character visits, to collect the decisions your character made that led them to deeper trouble, or even just a light planning of “beginning-middle-end” ideas that can serve as a loose roadmap if you find yourself going too far afield in your discovery draft.
Are you a Pantser, Plotter, or a bit of both? What tools do you use?
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, (now an expanded 2nd edition) as well as six others. Her books are available in seven languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.