When you first met one of your best friends, did you know everything there was to know about them? Of course not. Sometimes becoming friends is instantaneous, something about them tells you that you just know somehow that you’ll like them. Maybe it’s the easy way they have about them, or the direct way they look at you, the way they’re comfortable in their own skin – or not. Sometimes you’re wrong, or the gears don’t mesh in the way you hoped, but most of the time you’re right. Even so, you don’t know them, you’ve only just met. Plotters do. They have to have a detailed character synopsis. Pantsers don’t. Getting to know your characters is one of the parts of being a pantser.
There are variations of this even among pantsers – some do need those synopses. Just be prepared to throw them away. A lot of pantsers will tell you that sometimes their characters just take over. If you find that you need that detail, you may be a plotter more than a pantser, but even plotters can sometimes find themselves surprised.
If there is any hard and fast rule of writing, it is this ‘to thine own characters be true’. Any time you find yourself stalled in a story, it’s probably because you’re trying to force the character in a direction he or she doesn’t want to go.
The second rule is this ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the character, no laughter in the writer, no laughter in the character’. As Neil Gaiman advises ‘laugh at your own jokes’, because if you don’t your readers won’t either.
Characters grow or fall but as a writer, you have to describe how that happens, how they change and why. Take your readers on that journey with you and the character.
Lead characters – Protagonist(s) – the good guy(s)
You may know the basic idea of the story, how it starts and ends (be prepared for both to change) and your lead character(s) appears. Visualize your lead(s), get that first impression and share it with the reader. By the way, this is not about what they look like – although that may be part of it – but about how they are as a person. As with a new friend, what is it you like about them? What is it that makes them distinctive. As an example, if you’ve ever seen the old TV show Columbo, Columbo wasn’t handsome, but he had a kind of rumpled charm, and his tag line of ‘just one more thing’, defined the character of the seemingly absent-minded detective.
He or she has trials to face, they’ll be tested in some way, will they handle it well or badly?
If well, you’re establishing your character, and getting to know them. Handling that first setback might also set them up to fall later, through over-confidence or a blind spot or some other flaw. All characters, even the heroes, should have flaws.
If badly, why? Something from their past? A lack of confidence? A previous bad experience? There should be a reason, and you should lay the foundations of that early on.
As you write, you’ll learn the whys and wherefores. Keep writing.
Lead characters – Antagonist(s) – the bad guy(s)
Everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story, and that should be true of the bad guy. They truly believe that their actions are right and true, that their behavior – however horrible – is valid. Maybe they just think they have the right to what they want, or they believe they can do it better than the hero. There are numerous examples throughout history of kings or rulers overthrown or assassinated, wars fought, freedom fighters who became dictators (like Fidel Castro), or those who’ve killed others over a difference of belief.
They are not just placeholders, they should never be there merely to reflect or bolster the lead(s), they help move the story forward, too, be as true to them as you are to your hero. Describe them. They are individuals in and of themselves. Who are they? Friends of the good guy or bad guy? You’ll learn whether they help or hinder, aid or betray, as the story unfolds.
The joy of being a pantser is just that last – watching the story and the characters reveal themselves, the characters and circumstances surprising you as you go. One character rises to the occasion, another falters or falls. You as the writer, in concert with your hero, struggle to understand what motivates the bad guy to do what he does. You laugh when one character teases another and fight anger when one character betrays another, or fight tears when one dies.
If you do it right, one moment you’ll be writing, the next the story is done. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that you miss those characters the same way you miss old friends.