Creating characters – the pantser way

I know I am not fully in control of a story, but I usually have some idea where I want to go with it. Then, I introduce characters and they take over, sometimes taking the story in a completely different direction than I had planned. I am now, and will forever be, a pantser (you can read about pantsers and plotters here). That’s not gonna change any time soon, so I have learned to just live with it. Besides, I get to be as surprised as everyone else by what comes out of my pen.

Most of the time, it works. Other times, I read back over something I’ve just written, and know right away it won’t work. That’s why the delete key was invented. I delete everything that doesn’t work, have a stern talk with my main character, who just went heaven knows where, and we try again. Remember, even your main character can go off on a nonsensical tangent that has nothing to do with your novel, or slows it down or … you know, turns it into a disaster.

When it happens, do not panic. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s not the end of your novel. It’s nothing that can’t be fixed. Characters sometimes enjoy hogging the scenes, and you can always go back later and delete the unimportant stuff, or if it’s clear this new direction your main character is taking will derail your novel completely, go back immediately and delete it.

This works even for pantsers. We can generally just feel when a story isn’t going in the right direction. It’s part instinct and part experience. When I know a scene won’t work, when I know it will change the story so drastically that I won’t be able to recover it, I delete it right away, take a short break, then return to the story.

But, you may ask, what about character development, and arc and all that literary stuff that always gets hammered into our heads? I don’t know about other writers, but when I try to force development, growth, arc and what not else, it doesn’t work. My characters come out forced, fake and one-dimensional. Just like real life, I get to know my characters one page at a time, they reveal themselves, their personalities, their pasts, their interests, hobbies, and secrets to me bit by bit, and by the end of the novel, it’s all there. It comes naturally to most of us. If you’re really inside the head of your character, you won’t need to fret about this stuff while you’re drafting, it will all come out by itself.

That said, there are a few things you need to know before you start writing, and that’s a fairly good idea of your character’s back story, and what they look like. Again, you may ask, if I have no control, and know very little about my main characters, how do I know anything about them before I start? The answer is that when I get a new story idea, I don’t start writing right away. When a character shows up to “tell” me his or her story, I usually give it a few days before I sit down to write it. My husband calls it daydreaming, I call it work. Basically, I do no writing for a few days, but whenever I get a chance, I sit back, pop on my headphones, turn up the music, and let the character in. He will tell me his story, not all of it, but enough to give me an idea. This is usually the time I get a clear image of what the character looks like, I get glimpses into his personality, his past, his working life, etc. and I take notes.

Here is a short list of the things you need to know about your main character/s before you start writing about them:

1) Looks (hair colour, body shape, eye colour, height, etc) – You don’t have to go into too much detail here if you don’t want to. Some authors like to describe a character’s looks down to the over-sized pore on their chin, others’ enjoy giving only a faint outline, leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination.
2) Job – Does his/her job allow them a lot of freedom? Will it make them rich? Are they in a dead-end job that makes them miserable? Perhaps, they have a low-paying job, but it’s one that makes them insanely happy.
3) Education – Education makes a big difference. Educated people talk and think differently than uneducated people, and the higher they’re educated, the “higher” the language. Education also shapes things like diet, sleep patterns, lifestyle choices (the amount of children they have, for instance), what they read, etc. Again, you don’t need to give details, but in your novel, through speech and narration, you’ll want to show your character’s level of education. Remember that not all education is formal. A lot of very successful people are self-educated.
4) Childhood – What kind of childhood did your character have? Happy, sad, abusive? Again, you don’t need much detail, but our childhood follows us into adulthood, it shapes us into who we become. The same is true for your characters. It’s important to know at least a little bit about your characters’ childhood.
5) Relationships – How does your character deal with romantic relationships? Is he a serial monogamist or an incurable womaniser? Maybe he’s a little bit of both? What about friendships? Does she make friends easily, or does she keep everyone at a distance?

What about arc? That, I feel, should develop naturally. Just like we grow as people in real life (or sink to the pits of despair), so your characters’ arcs must evolve naturally as you write. When you try to tie your characters down to a certain arc, try to force their growth or fall (there is more than one character arc), you will end up with stilted, forced characters.

What about personality? The same applies. You can have a faint idea what your character is like, but we are all multidimensional beings, with several different personality traits, if you try to hold your character to the few you’ve written down for him, you’ll end up with boring, predictable characters.

Of course, there are many writers who do it differently, and end up with great characters. There are also many who do it the way I do it, and end up with boring, flat characters. You can map out every detail of your character, right down to the car she drives, and the hair products she prefers, but most pantsers don’t do it. We like to get to know our protagonists (and even our antagonists) like we get to know people in real life.