Are you a plotter or a pantser? That’s a popular question at writing workshops these days. The truth is we all do some of both. Plotters often find themselves furiously rewriting when they realize that their characters would react completely differently than they thought they would. In writing as in life, nothing tempts fate more than a good plan. And what pantsers haven’t been slowed to a crawl because their characters get stuck and nothing seems to be happening? That’s when even diehard pantsers need to put in some serious brainstorming time away from the page. In either case, you can use questions to move back and forth: Why is this character reacting this way? What if this happened instead?
For me, it usually works best to dive in for a bit – to try to capture in words the voice and personality as it most vividly strikes me. A character can be a kind of sounding. You intuit that there’s a story there, but at first you may not know what it is. You may need time to discover it. If the character occurs to me in a situation from the start, then that’s easier, but if not, then I try to think about what’s lacking in that character’s life and what’s especially difficult for him or her. I mentally throw things at the character and see what reverberates. I spend time in my head and on the page.
However, I did make an adjustment earlier in my writing, specifically for novels – after I wrote my first book on instinct and it ended up in a nice box on my shelf. That’s when I decided I needed more education on plot. For my second book, I did better by putting more work into plot near the beginning. I stayed open, but went in with more ideas.
Because of that experience, I like to suggest that you try to structure your approach to new work with a view to pushing yourself in your areas of weakness. If you’re great with character but weak on plot, then push yourself to consider the what ifs of plot – to get some ideas on the table. If you’re great with plot, then try to invest some early work on your characters and whys. See Leading Against Your Strengths.
But I think the most interesting distinction here has to do with where you find yourself when you ask the questions that lead to story. Do you feel like you’re more outside the character, thinking “what if I – the writer – toss this at you”? Or are you deep inside the character, with your hands in their knots, thinking “why do you feel this way” and “why did you do that” and looking for what could happen to put that to the test? Yes, we all do some of both, but where do you spend more time? Outside or in? On what ifs or on whys? Both are necessary to all kinds of novel writing – it’s part of the dynamic, the inside and out of crafting story – but we’re going to vary on where we fall in that continuum. Where we fall may have a lot to do with whether our work is more in the literary or the commercial camp.
The essential thing is to connect the two – to use your instincts about your character to pose the most challenging what ifs; to answer your what ifs with the most honest character reactions and follow up with the deepest whys. To try always to keep in mind a relationship of resistance and challenge between character and plot events. Even if your emphasis is on the whys, you need to destabilize resistant characters with outside events to open them up to new questions, to get them cracked open, and ultimately to get them to change in some way.