Monday, September 19, 2011

Character Intrusion!

One of the ‘benefits’ of being a pantser—as opposed to an outliner who knows most of the story up front—is that I never know when a character will alter my novel. This happened in Portrait of a Girl Running. I needed a marginal character as a catalyst for added tension; just a supporting player, mind you. His name is Mr. Myles. An unexpected thing happened though. When I set him in a scene with my protagonist, they had this amazing chemistry I hadn’t counted on. They could not be in the same scene together without them carving out an emotional wake. In fact, Myles became not only a major character in the novel (and the sequel) but he also refined the overall theme.

It happened again in Portrait of a Protégé. On a whim, a character named Marvelle* enters the story—and bam! she takes over!

I’ve been evaluating what these two intruding characters have in common.

Each one:
  • has a dynamic personality
  • engages with the protagonist in a battle of wills
  • ultimately has the protagonist’s best interest at heart
  • is considerably older than the protagonist
  • is based—at least partially—on a real person I have known.
I wonder how much this last factor contributes to their strength—that is, to my ability to truly bring them to life in such a profound way.

I’m curious—whether you’re a pantser or an outliner—Do you have characters that enter your story in an unexpected way? Do they refine, or even redefine your theme? Are any of your characters based on someone you have personally known?


  1. My characters are not based on someone I've personally known, but their situations and the setting of the story is. Characters do enter unexpectedly and act unexpectedly. I'm definitely a pantser. I don't understand how anyone can outline a story ahead of time. How do they know what will happen until their characters act???

  2. Where did this word "pantser" come from anyway? Is it even a word???

  3. Yvonne! HA! I was reading this post to my husband last night--you should have seen his expression when I said "pantser!" I think the term comes from the phrase ' the seat of your pants.'

    From the Cambridget Dictionary:

    "If you do something by the seat of your pants, you do it using only your own experience and trusting your own judgment."

    For me, half the fun of writing by the seat of my pants is the unexpected! Though I have to admit, at times I wish I had some sort of outline to keep me on track and moving forward. I'm trying the OUTLINE, but sort of by the seat of my pants...

  4. I am a pantser by nature until I get to page 100. Then I outline in my pants. (Meaning I make a rough outline to get me to the end of the story. Of course that ALWAYS changes which is why I generally do it in YOGA PANTS. They're more flexible.)

    All of my contemporary characters are based on people I've known. Situations I've personally seen. All of my historical characters are based on me, and my own personal experiences. Don't know why, it's just the way I write.

    And as for theme -- what's that? Am I supposed to have one???

  5. Anne, I'm also at the point in my story where I feel as if I need some direction, and so I'm trying to work out a vague outline "in my pants" (you know just how awful that sounds, lol!)

    I think it's really interesting that your historical characters are based on you and your own personal experience...hmmmm...

    As far as themes go--yeah, I was pretty much oblivious to that when I started writing, but when I analysed them afterward, I realized they do in fact have a theme! So do your stories! :)

  6. I'm still figuring out whether I'm truly a pantser or plotter. In the past I've plotted, but I pants'd NaNo last year with some surprising results.

    And yeah, I've had a character or two run away with a scene on me. I always wonder if it's because, when writing a scene, my focus is usually on the MC(s), which means the secondary characters are coming more from the peripery/ subconscious--which does a better job of characterizing naturally. Less book-knowledge, more gut-knowledge.

    It's just a theory, but one thing I really have to work to do is get an MC to run away with a scene. :D

  7. Jon Paul, that is an interesting thought about 'secondary characters coming more from the periphery/subconscious--which does a better job of characterizing naturally. Less book-knowledge, more gut-knowledge.' I like that explanation!

    I think for the sake of growing as a writer, it's good to try out both sides of the spectrum. I have to admit though, trying to stick to an outline is hard and it's stifling my desire to just write what comes into my head--you know, I get nervous that I'm not sticking with the program. Yes, I tend to get a little neurotic!

  8. The first two novels in my Edge of the World series were completely pants. I had an image in my head, and wrote a very short story to 'paint' it. That was my opening scene. I went on from there.

    Book three requires a rather loose outline. Really, just some notes and scribbles.

    Book four I actually did a storyboard before writing. I used the presentation software that came with Open Office and made up a lot of slides. These I could move around until I had the scenes in order, more or less.

    I keep this open when I write, along with a comprehensive character list. So far the tools have been useful. Chapter fourteen, just a bit over 25,000 words.

  9. Michael...okay, first I just want to say that I like that you're a pantser, but not just that--you are also willing to try out the outlining thing and it seems to be working for you!

    Next, I want to say I am facinated with your usage of the Open Office (I'm assuming it's the 'Impress' software) for doing a storyboard! So, do you use actual slides--pictures? I have the software but never considered it for that application. Would love it if you'd elaborate! Now I have to go check that out.

    ...and 25K words is terrific! Can't wait till I meet that milestone! :)

  10. Michael, here's another question, since you seem to be up on Open Office--is the 'presentation' program (Impress--I think it used to be called something else before I updated the software recently), is it something that could be used to do a book trailer? What do you think?

  11. This happens to me all the time, and I'm an outliner. Fortunately I love surprises. :D

  12. Stina, that's very reassuring--I'm trying to do some outlining, but I'm nervous that it will take away from my spontaneous moments of inspiration! I suppose that when a character is determined to intrude, they do!

  13. YES, I had a minor character (VERY minor - as in I could remove him and no one would notice) say one unexpected line, and suddenly he became integral to the story! I'm a pantser too... I've tried to make outlines, but they just never seem to work out.

  14. Writing Nut--that's exactly what I love about being a pantser! The unexpected! And even if someone intrudes and adds nothing to the story, the writing exercise is good and we can always hit 'delete'!

  15. Yes, in a recent manuscript revision, two minor characters had a way of taking over and becoming major. When that happens, I think it's necessary and was intended from the start, but is just a part of the whole writing process ...

  16. Joanne, I wonder how many out-liners experience this sort of thing.

    I think it's interesting that your two minor characters who took over and became major, were part of your revision process! it usually happens to me in the initial writing.

  17. I'm a loose outliner, but I don't close the door on changes happening - and new characters entering the story. I'm always open to change, even during final edits with my publisher! Story trumps all. :)

  18. I outline but pants my scenes, and I just wrote in a new character that popped up and needed to be there!

  19. i love putting characters in the arena and seeing how they interact with each other. the dramatic or comedic tension a character provides is so exciting. as you wrote about mr. myles i thought of a foil in my book, too. writing actually becomes easier with the proper cast of characters present for sure.
    spot on points.
    there is a wonderful place (i've heard of) that combines organic creating with a functional outline. how we each get there is our own path, or patch, i guess:)

  20. Michelle, I think it’s openness to change—regardless of how stringent the or lax the outline— that is so important! But surely you don’t have intruding characters during your final edits with your publisher, lol!

    Lydia, I like that! Outline, but pants your scenes variation.

    Okay, Ed, you made me look up a word I thought I knew! You ‘thought of a foil in your own book’! FOIL—you mean “a person or thing that makes another seem better by contrast.” ? Do you realize that’s the 4th definition down on the second usage out of three for the word FOIL! This is why I love fellow writers!

    I actually long for the days of writing ease when I had Mr. Myles to play with!

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  23. Bridget, I had a supposed minor character in a story become a lead as well. How it started was; a friend of mine knew I was writing a story and asked if he was going to be in it -- as a joke. Well, I thought about it for half a minute and said, 'yeah, there's a character coming up that I haven't a name for. It's yours.' Lo and behold, the character of "Alan" played a very important role in the story. And the role was a much larger role than originally intended.

    Nice how that works out, isn't? :) And I too like creating a story when I have no more a clue what is happening next than a reader would. :)

    (It's great to catch up reading your blog. Miss you!)

    ~ Craig

  24. Hi Craig! So nice to have you drop in! Yeah, we're both pansters for sure. Sometimes I love it and sometimes it leaves me too many options and I have a hard time deciding just how I want the story to develop or how to get from point A to point B. I probably shouldn't think so much about it--just start writing, eh?

    Hope all is well with you and your writing, Craig! :)

  25. I tend not to base them on real people, although of course bits are in there. But yes, secondary characters will often be the most colorful ones that bring out the conflict with the MC. And that's how it should be! :)

  26. Susan, I suppose there's always risk involved with designing a character to true to a specific person--both my 'from real life' characters are dead, so they'll never know!

  27. I'm an outliner... when I try to write a novel the pantser way, I always get stuck... though for short stories I'm pantser all the way:)

  28. Tania, how interesting that you outline for novels but go by the pants for short stories! I'm still trying to find my happy medium...

  29. I've never actually encountered the term "panster" before, but it definitely sounds like my method of writing.

    I usually have a loose outline of the plot but keep things vague enough that I'm left plenty of room for innovation. A few big changes--and big characters--have happened by surprise.

  30. SftS, Yeah, the term 'pantser' was a new one to me till a couple of years ago--it certainly raised a brow till I understood it in context, lol.

    I too am an innovator! Don't you just love when a suprpise character comes and disrupts the story!