Of Quirks and Characters

Lucienne DiverLucienne Diver
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As far as I’m concerned, anyone who always behaves exactly as expected is a construct and not a character, literary or otherwise.  That’s because living, breathing people—and your characters should certainly come across that way to the reader—are unscripted.  They’ll frequently frustrate and surprise you.  In that way, my characters are to me just like people, family particularly, because no one else gets under the skin in quite the same way.

The reason I’m a pantser rather than a plotter is that by the time I come to the end of a scene or a chapter, I’ve frequently learned something I didn’t know when I sat down to write.  Sometimes it’s a bit of background on the character, something he or she has suddenly revealed to me (yes, writing often feels to me more like discovery than creation).  Sometimes it a dogleg in the action, because I thought one of my people would respond a certain way only to find out that I was wrong, and the direction chosen changes everything.  Oh, I always have an idea where I’m going with a book.  I know point A and sometimes LMN, often Z.  But the points between…well, they’re not generally as straightforward as the alphabetical analogy would have you think.

In fact, I think that’s why writing appeals to me so much—that sense of discovery as I go.  Every novel is an adventure.  I might know what the overarching danger is, but I don’t know exactly how my characters will choose to combat it.  A novel is a tale I tell myself as much as I tell it to readers.  It’s the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure.  Only instead of two or three possible outcomes, every choice made leads to infinite possibilities, limited only by my imagination.

And, really, how constrained can you be when your main character is the result of a family line that traces back to the god Pan beer-goggling one of the gorgons?  Luckily, Tori, my heroine, doesn’t have some of the more aggressive gorgonic traits, like her cousin Tina’s really pronounced underbite or her grandmother’s beard.  She might or might not have the ability to stop men in their tracks.  A fairly useful trait when you’re a P.I. stalking the back alleys of L.A.  Or it wouldn’t be if the bad guy didn’t look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and there weren’t a host of other Greek gods still walking about in modern dress, like Apollo, beloved star of stage and screen; Zeus, whose one-man pyrotechnic show is the toast of Vegas; and Aphrodite, currently the new Mayflower Madam.  Yeah, losing their worship has meant a significant drop in their powers, but Tori isn’t ready to count them out just yet.  It seems the old ones are planning a comeback with L.A. and its oblivious citizens footing the ultimate bill.

Yeah, you can tell I had fun with this. Luckily for me, Bad Blood is only the first in the Latter-Day Olympians series, so Tori and her crazy cadre get to entertain and surprise me anew in a second adventure forthcoming in 2012.  I hope you’ll let them entertain you as well.

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20 comments to Of Quirks and Characters

  • Sounds like a fun read, Lucienne. Looking forward to it. I would argue that one can be a plotter and still enjoy that sense of discovery you write about in this post. I tend to outline, but I do so loosely, so that I know where I’m headed, but I also leave myself plenty of space in which to roam during the writing process. And I wonder, since you say “I know point A and sometimes LMN, often Z,” whether plotting versus pantsing isn’t more of a continuum rather than a black and white choice. You call yourself a pantser; I call myself a plotter (“To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to”) — but it seems to me that our processes aren’t that different.

  • David, I think you’re absolutely right about it being a continuum. My plotting to pantsing ratio changes even with each book I write.

  • (You see that folks, a man got to be right…in =writing=. You heard it here first. Okay, maybe not first, but….)

  • Wow! I’m going to have to show this to Nancy….

  • My wife and I sat down and plotted out the synopsis for the first finished novel, Rogue 5 (the first one I’d ever finished to that point, which I attribute to the plotting), but there were still places where the character actions forced me to add other scenes that weren’t plotted and I didn’t plan on. In that way, the characters often feel like living things to me because they sometimes don’t do what I expect them to as I’m developing them, based on what I know about them…and sometimes what I don’t. There are times when I’ll be confused because the character is and I’ll be muddling over a problem at the same time they are because their minds *would* have an issue with whatever problem I’ve presented them with.

    The recent piece I’m writing has that very issue as the protag is thinking over a problem based on her assessment of the situation. She’s sometimes able to *read* a situation and the current one doesn’t add up. Thus, I’ve slowed down writing that as I’m dealing with her thought processes and confusion as well. It made sense to me, the writer, but now she’s trying to make sense of it without the entire story. Unfortunately, I can’t let her dwell on it for too long. ;)

    Hmmm…I wonder if writers create temporary, personal Tulpa, based on how everyone talks about their characters as though they’re pseudo-living entities… ;)

  • Julia

    Lucienne, great post! I’ve always really resonated with the idea of writing as discovery. I get a strong emotional payoff from the discovery process, and I always thought this meant I couldn’t plot in advance. If I did, I feared I’d lose the magical sense of surprise and uncertainty that helps drive me through the first draft.

    But… I’ve just started playing with ideas for my next book, and I’ve resolved to try a bit of light plotting. I realize that there’s a lot of anxiety for me in not knowing “point Z” — and that I have to rewrite vast reams of the novel once I finally figure out the ending and the climactic scene.

    Do you always know “point Z” before you start? Or do do you sometimes find yourself winging the ending? If so, I’d love to know what this means for you in terms of revision, etc.

  • Julia,

    When I say I know point Z, I really only mean that I know at what point in the plot things have to come to a head. I don’t generally have any idea how this will happen, or even where. Plus, when I get to the point where I can see the end of the novel in sight, I tend to rush things, so that my final, say, fifty pages are often in need of deep, deep revision. However, tying the words “the end” takes the pressure off, so I’m able to go back and do what needs to be done sans panic attack. The only exception is the middle grade novel which I’ve just finished. Oddly, the story is more epic and less episodic than my other series works, so I couldn’t rush it because I had so much to set up, I felt the pressure to get it just right. I’m reading it over for revisions now. I’ll let you know how it goes (dread, angst, agony). In this book, since I had to essentially plot the duology before starting, I did know what point Z would be, but knowing how it goes down…something entirely different. (See my ideas vs. execution blog for Deborah Blake: http://deborahblake.blogspot.com/2011/06/guest-blogger-lucienne-diver-author.html.)

  • Ah the contrast between Pantsing and Plotting. I often hear/read that pantsers think plotters are tied to the plot. I have to say that’s not the case for me. I need to be able to see that I’ve come up with enough of an idea to fill a novel by plotting the story arc. Then when I write, the characters develop more than I imagined when I created them.
    I’ve had characters take me in a different direction to the same result and I’ve had a character that I thought was a small part of the plot become the main driver for the protagonist.

    I like the concept that it’s a continuum that people travel. I know I don’t do the same level of plotting for all my books, but I can’t just sit down and write – I just run out of story and can’t dig into the dross to find what to fix

  • Julia

    Thanks, Lucienne! That’s helpful. In my most recent novel, I actually didn’t know the end of the story for quite a long time. I was okay with it for a while, but at some point, I realized that I didn’t know if the story had a satisfying end. I’ve resolved NOT to do that again, because it led to a lot of anxiety.

    I’ve begun thinking of my pantser-style plotting as identifying and envisioning a few important turning points that I know (or think I know) at the outset… using these as touchstones for the shape of the book. I’m also pushing myself to sketch out the climactic scene at the end. Even if I change it later, at least I’ve got a general idea in mind.

    This sounds like a cross between what you’re describing and David’s method. Thanks for being willing to talk about your process.

  • I’d have to say I’m a combination of plotter and pantser as well. I work in a 10,000 year timeline with many of the things I write so I am constantly aware of historical events (my own world historica) that have to take place.

    I actually start a WIP as an Event Story but once I get down to the actual writing I am often surprised to discover who participated in the Event. And by the time I’m working on a second draft the Event has transformed into a story about the Characters. They find a way to take over how and why the Event takes place, making the Event inevitable because of who they are.

    If that makes any sense. :-)

  • You could have ended this post with the first paragraph–heck, the first sentence–and I would call it worth its weight ion gold. “As far as I’m concerned, anyone who always behaves exactly as expected is a construct and not a character, literary or otherwise.” So simple, but so true!

  • I totally agree with Edmund — that one line was GOLD! And I never thought about that before — needing inconsistancy (or maybe fluidity) in a character’s actions. I like it very much.

    As to plotting vs pantsing, I am usually a very heavy plotter with plot arcs, getting that way from my mystery background and the need to plant clues and red herrings and not screw up who the bad guy might be. But my character arcs are totally pantsed, and I never know what my characters will reveal to me. Half the time I have no idea what my character’s history is or how that might affect her actions.

    Now — perhaps the most important part, I’ve read BAD BLOOD and it is *really* good. Snarky. (Which I adore. Gee wonder why?) Just enough character flaws and weaknesses to make the MC have zing. Sexy. Just violent enough for the genre, and a plot line that kept me guessing. Frankly, I expect a larger press to pick up the series for mass market publication.(And the writer, of course.) Hope Lucienne had a good agent that would let that happen. LOL (snerk snerk)

  • I think I work similarly to Perry. With the plot arc in place for me (or an idea of where I’m going), I’m free to let the characters develop as they will in order to get there. Often those developments lead to changes in the plot arc (when a character suddenly won’t behave a certain way or says something unexpected, etc.). I’m happy to write without a sure plot for a while, just to figure out what the story is… but not having an ending in mind I find difficult. I’m struggling with the ending for a new shiny. I know the character arc (how I want her to change) but the plot arc is giving me trouble. Mostly because I’ve got a protagonist that is already a kind of villain, and the story is about her becoming less of one–she certainly isn’t going to reach hero status by the end, but she’ll be better. This is different than other stuff I’ve written where my characters are fundamentally decent people (or want to be) coping with bad things they’ve done or tough situations they are in.

  • Aw, Faith, thank you SO much!

    Pea Faerie, that’s always a tricky thing, I agree. So rewarding, though, when you nail it. Redemption is one of my very favorite themes.

  • I vaguely plotted my WIP and wrote it out following the plot somewhat, although I let the plot get a bit fluid here and there. Now that I’m in revision hell, I find I’m pantsing a bit more, as I try to cut out the total dreck that doesn’t make sense. Lots of stuff going into the ‘maybe use someday in some project’ folder. Lots getting swapped around within the story.

    I am running into some character development challenges right now, as my main love interest really doesn’t want to be a boring, flat, cliche character. I’m not quite sure who he is yet. I should probably skip ahead and polish up some of the later stuff that doesn’t involve him, but I’m dealing with the anxiety that gosh, once I get to know him better, he may have more of an impact on that stuff.

    Darnit, why does my incubus want to be somewhat of a nerd, and not a Don Juan. Head to desk.

  • it’s an evolving thing for me. When I started out writing stand alone novels I was an all-out pantser. But then being a greedy bugger, I wanted more of the story/characters/world so I progressed to trilogys and series. That’s where I absolutely have to have significant amounts of plotsing going on or I lost the plot, literally and figuratively. (Like the song says, “I don’t want much, I just want more”)

    I haven’t noticed any changes in how my characters evolve either way though. Which as far as I’m concerned is proof positive that they really exist in an alternate realm and all we writers do is scribe for them.

  • Having been involved in intense discussions with friends such as Perry about plotting versus pantsing (I swear, this comes up at least once a month in our group), I’ve come to realize that plotting and pantsing are the two ends of a vast spectrum. In the great wordcount war during last NaNo I wrote for the Plotters side, yet I still managed to surprise myself. I, too, like to know where I’m going, but even with an ending, characters, and general plot in mind, I often encounter little epiphanies that set off mini-brainstorming sessions as I go.

    Which is why I’m convinced that it *is* a spectrum. Sure, I have a plot, but making these discoveries totally feels like pantsing.

  • widdershins: “they really exist in an alternate realm and all we writers do is scribe for them.” Abso-flippin-lutely.

  • Great post, Lucienne. I’ve always been a total pantster but I’ve discovered recently that I need at least a loose outline of where the story is going. As I’m writing, I tend to feel like I’m herding flying cats in the general direction I want them to go and I rarely know in advance what kinds of mischief they’ll get into along the way.
    Now… to highjack off topic for a second… DAVID! How come book two of Winds of the Forelands isn’t available on Kindle????

  • Unicorn

    Late to the party again, sorry. Great post, Lucienne, thank you. I too agree with Widdershins – they sure do exist. And they have minds of their own, much to my dismay at times. My current hero is very infuriating. He does not make plans; he is forever telling the other characters, “We’ll wing it” and unfortunately he keeps telling me that, too. Sigh. It makes life interesting.
    As for the plotter vs. pantser debate, I am a plotter, but not on paper. I plot in my head. I might make a few notes regarding characters and some backstory, but I never write out the plot. That way it stays fresh and demanding in my head and more or less forces me to write.
    Thanks again.
    Unicorn