Confessions of a Pantser

I read that 66% of authors say their characters speak to them. At first glance, I’d say that implies a high incidence of schizophrenia among writers. But I was secretly pleased to find this because my characters speak to me. And no, I don’t mean there are voices in my head. There is only one voice, mine. But my characters do tend to take on agency. I once wrote a story for college, the big project in my creative writing class. It got an A, but I wasn’t completely happy with it. Years later I had a dream where the main character of that story came to me and said I had his story all wrong. I woke up the next morning, sat at my computer, and opened my mind. The story poured out in one sitting, all 7,000 words of it. It had the same beginning but took a completely different direction.

One of the differences was the name of the best friend. Once I discovered the friend’s name, he took on more of a role in the story. I’ve found my characters are particular about their names. Many cultures believe personal names have power. My characters are the same. If I change a character’s name, often the entire arc of the story changes. When I start a story, I will lay out the characteristics of the MC, maybe conjure up an image, then I start writing. So often, the name just comes out. I’ve had stories where I had to force a name because one didn’t come up automatically and the story hasn’t worked. In my WIP I’m on the 4th name for an important side character, but it’s not the right one, yet he stubbornly refuses to reveal it. And then there are times when the name doesn’t really matter. I recently sold a story told in first person where the MC is never named, except once, when his sister calls him Cupcake. I wrote the whole story never realizing he wasn’t named until I did my re-read. I thought about adding a name, but no. He wanted to remain anonymous.

And no, I’m not off my medication. I still understand the difference between fiction and reality. But somehow, the act of writing taps a part of my brain that is otherwise quiescent. It’s part of why I’m a pantser rather than a plotter. When I write, I frequently don’t know where the story is going. Sometimes I have a destination in mind, sometimes not. And even if there is a destination, I don’t always end up where I thought we were going. It’s the getting there that’s fun. I allow my characters free rein when I write. Sometimes they go places I didn’t intend. I guess in those cases a piece of my mind wanted to explore it. But it’s almost like watching a movie. I’m just recording what I’m seeing.

To be sure, sometimes my characters go places and do things best left unwritten. Those stories are either deleted or assigned to an X file, possibly to be resurrected if they promise to behave. And the ones who please me the most get more attention. Two of my favorite characters became the focal points of my two novels. I liked them so much I wanted to continue spending time with them, just as I would a friend in the real world. So I kept going back to the page and asking them to speak to me again. It was like reconnecting with an old friend. I got 110,000 words from one and 77,000 from the other. I also got hours visiting someone I felt a real connection with.

So yeah, my characters speak to me. But that’s okay. I enjoy what they have to say.

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