A question writers are often asked is, “Are you a plotter or a pantser?” A plotter is defined as a writer who sits down and maps out the entire story before writing, whereas a pantser is someone who starts with characters in a situation, and then observes and records how the story develops based on the choices the characters make.
This is an oversimplification of the writing process, because some writers do a little of both. I know I do. When I start a story, I have a general idea of the shape of it—the major plot points and how it might end. However, I’ve found that my characters always seem to know best. That is, when I step back and let the characters drive the story, the choices they make are much more interesting and genuine than my original thoughts about what was supposed to happen. I also find that I enjoy the process more. I’m delighted when I am immersed in a story and a character surprises me. People are complicated—they have needs and desires that are sometimes at odds with one another, and that can cause them to behave in unexpected ways.
Still, I can appreciate the merits of plotting, particularly in the mystery genre, where you plot by starting at the end, and plant clues as you work your way back to the beginning of the story. Not that you can’t have suspense and insert clues into a character driven story—you can. But the process is a whole lot messier, and foreshadowing gets refined in revision.
In writing a trilogy, I found some plotting was necessary to make sure the three manuscripts were cohesive. Plotting can be helpful for authors who find it challenging to keep track of multiple characters and storylines. The danger in relying too much on plotting is that the story can feel stilted. Staying open to changing the story and letting go of a rigid plot can help if your manuscript feels contrived. The danger in being a pantser is your story can go in a direction you didn’t intend. That might be a good thing, providing an unexpected twist. Or it might not be, if an unruly character has hijacked your story and taken it for a tangential ride that weakens the story. Plotting can help corral those characters.
In the end, does it matter whether you are a plotter or a pantser? No—as long as you get words on the page and create a great story. Both methods of writing work, if you understand the strengths and weaknesses of each, if you are willing to take a hard look at your work during revisions, and if you know your characters well. The more you know about how your characters think and behave, the stronger your story will become, whether you are a plotter, a pantser, or something in between.