July 24th, 2019

Character Building for Pantsers

Angela Ackerman

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.

Click on photo to expand

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.

Vision Boards: Create one that shows what your character likes, what they are interested in, what they value, what they look like, and what they believe in. (Pinterest can also be terrific for this.)

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.

And finally, Jami Gold has a terrific post that looks at how she develops character as a Pantser,here.

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.

15 responses to “Character Building for Pantsers”

  1. Julie Glover says:

    How do I love your One Stop for Writers? Let me count the ways! I love having all these features at my fingerprints, and the Character Builder is another great tool. Being a plantser, or really puzzler (writing out of order, but to an overall outline), I find the tools really helpful. Thanks for covering this one!

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      I am so glad you are getting good use from the site, Julie. And I have never heard of the term "Puzzler" before but I love it! I do know people who like to write out of order--I didn't realize this was what you did as well. 🙂

  2. dholcomb1 says:

    I am a pantser who keeps a journal and writes down aspects of the character from description, special characteristics (goals, flaws, heart of the character), and recently, I've been writing a one pager. Since I write romance, I already know the HEA is there and with whom the characters will unite in the end, and I have an idea of a few things which need to happen along the way. The one pager is nice--it's less than a synopsis, works better for me as I develop a basic plot without the confines of a full outline, and I can still be a pantser.

    denise

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      I think a one-pager is a great way to collect those big picture ideas without feeling too hemmed in by structure. I know for me, I like to brainstorm and put my ideas together as well, but I always reach a point where I know that if I "know" anything more about what is going to happen, it will spoil the story for me. I always start writing at that point--I definitely still need to have discoveries as I go. 🙂

  3. Jane says:

    Great post. Apologies, but I couldn't find the reference to Character Arc Blueprint. Can you say more about it? Thanks.

  4. Evelyn Morgan says:

    Liked your post. I once was strictly a pantser. At the beginning of my writing that is. Now I like to know my characters before I start writing that first draft. But I still have epiphanies that make writing exciting as I go.

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      Thanks Evelyn! You and I sound very similar, because I do the same thing--get to know them before I write but leave room for those all-important discoveries. i feel like this is a good balance between writing with a destination in mind but keeping options open for the route I'll take. 🙂

  5. angelaackerman1 says:

    Hi Jane...I wrote this all out and the comment field ate it. Let's hope I cover all the same bases this time 🙂

    The Character Arc Blueprint is a powerful feature within the Character Builder. You can find it on the Motivation Tab, and basically what it does is collect key pieces of information that you add to your character and pull it all together to show you how it will be part of the Character's arc. So it looks at what you're character's goal is, the stakes, the past wound that they need to overcome, etc., and generates an accurate "blurb" about your character's arc that will help you understand what your story is really about, and what is motivating your character from within.

    The best way to see it in action is to look at my test character Paul's PDF linked in this post: https://onestopforwriters.com/assets/tools/cbt_sample-c2bc5b3593a4d978918ff14df9f9d7a695d4b4aac71a4b992fba659f0ade88e0.pdf

    If you go to "Motivation" you'll see his Change Arc Blueprint. This will be critical information for the story that I would want to follow if I intent to hit all the biggest puzzle pieces of a successful character journey. This change arc can be switched to a Failed Arc or a Static Arc too, so if you want to see what happens if the character is to fail in their mission or the story is not as much about inner change as it is changing the world, you can see that too. 🙂

    There's a video about the Character Builder here (a walkthrough): https://onestopforwriters.com/about_cbt

    And there's a post here on the blog that also looks at the Character Builder more deeply: https://writersinthestormblog.com/2019/02/how-to-create-a-fascinating-cast-of-characters/

    I hope this helps--if you have any questions, just shout!

  6. littlemissw says:

    I've found that just as a writer people think I'm dong something wrong 😀 The general consensus I get is it's time to get a real job.

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      People around us can be less than supportive, can't they? (HUGS.) Just think about how many books would not be out there in the world if any of us listened to this advice. Had I, there would be no emotion thesaurus or sequels. If you have a book inside you, let it come out. 🙂 I guarantee there are many more behind it, and a readership that will enjoy your storytelling and be waiting for more!

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      Thank you, Laura! Just being a link in the chain. The generosity of others has helped me so much so paying that forward the tiniest bit feels great. I hope you had a blast at Nationals!

  7. LauraDrake says:

    Angela, you and your buds do more to help the writing community than almost anyone! Even the pantless panther that I am can use this! Thank you!

  8. sam says:

    Whooof, when I read 'Character motivation' my eyes glaze over and I see hours of WiP words sailing into the sunset. Plotters mean well, they can't help themselves, teaching is part of Plotting. To write with Pants is to discover. I am not dissing Plotters, plot on.
    I prefer to do the work during the revision slog. There is where I see how character files may be developed in order to find contrary details and correct them.

    • angelaackerman1 says:

      Yes, we each have a process, and it's not wrong if it works for us. Pants, plot or do something in between! 🙂

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