Discovery vs. planning: character backgrounds

Many writers divide themselves into “plotter” and “pantser” camps. But… there’s more to fiction than plot. If you have a plot and no characters, nothing happens. There’s nobody to move the plot forward. So, today we’re considering “discovery writing” versus planning in developing characters.

The joy of discovery

There is joy in discovery. The things we discover about our characters and ourselves while writing are valuable. Some writers discover the key points of their characters after “just plunging in” and start writing.

In the discovery writing method, we just start with a hook: a name, a detail, a situation, or a need in our story (if we’re being honest); and then we build out the character as we go. The direction the story goes guides us in building and developing our character. Caracter creation by the discovery method (hopefully) occurs naturally as part of the flow of our work. We’re discovering, not cranking things out formulaically.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it (or at least one of them…). We’re not cranking things our formulaically but did we notice we fell into a cliché? Did we notice we have three other characters who are basically the same person with a different name? That’s pretty formulaic…

To write a readable story, we’re going to have to do some work. If you’re a discovery writer, that work comes in on the backend. It comes in rewriting and correcting mistakes we’ve made.

The value of planning

Sometimes there’s value in putting that work on the front end. Lately I’ve been experimenting with a character outline guide I found in Writing the Paranormal Novel. I’m finding helpful.

To be fair, I have done a first draft of the book (or I should say the first draft of a book. The reality of the situation is a bit more complicated ). But, in developing the project, I’m bringing in some new characters; meaning I’m testing on both new and existing characters.

Outline/guide has really helped me explore the characters more deeply before throwing them into the story. It’s helping me see options and story possibilities that might not have occurred to me otherwise (they didn’t occur to me previously on the existing characters…).

Yes, there is a possibility of things becoming too fixed and mechanical. It is possible to crank out a bunch of backgrounds without really doing the thinking. And that doesn’t get you anywhere. It doesn’t save you any work and may create more backend work when you realize you have to go back and do the revision anyway (score one for discovery writing).

There are also things in the ‘standard’ profile that don’t work for every character. The education section makes sense for my wizard/detective. It works for my priest character. And it’s a must for my main villains (I really need to know how they know what they know). But for my street kid character? Let’s be honest, he can’t even spell the word…

And then there are things like the romance section, especially the question about their first sexual encounter. Again, for some characters it makes sense (my main villains especially). But my priest is celibate and always has been. The street kids, that gets uncomfortable. The 11-to-13-year-old siblings with the potential to have their own (mid-grade) side book…? Cringe… NO! I ain’t even thinking about that one.

There’s real potential in doing some character planning beforehand, but there’s the danger of “just going through the motions”, the danger of getting things too locked in, and then there’s the stuff that just doesn’t apply.

Developing and keeping track of it all

Some of the best advice I’ve been given is that we should change whatever we need to in the story in order to make it work (and to make it publishable). If we’re going to cling to a particular detail or idea to the detriment of our story, it’ll kill the story.

Again, this is something that doesn’t just apply to plot. Whether we’re discovery writers or we start out with detailed character dossiers, we have to adapt (and to let our characters do the same). We have to make sure our characters are consistent. If they change, it should be a logical change based on what’s come before, not just a change of convenience.

This suggests that we need some way of keeping track of our characters. That dossier is going to happen, even if it just lives in our heads. The questions are: when do we build it? And how do we use it?

The best option is to follow a middle ground. Not everyone is going to need a dossier. Not every character who needs one will be apparent at the outset. We may decide to ‘86’ a character we’ve built a dossier for (we can save it for another project…). But by having a dossier for our main characters, we can save ourselves some work, make our characters more consistent, and find options and ideas that might take us a couple of rewrites to discover otherwise.

You’ll probably have at least one or two characters in mind at the start. Build a dossier for them (even if it’s only in your head), but recognize you may need to update that dossier as things go. Events will happen and new information will be discovered. It’s just like real life. We update as we go.

We might not need to stop and develop dossiers for every side character. If the cheese monger or ‘guy in traffic’ character is only there for one scene, we probably don’t need a dossier. But if that character keeps showing up, we probably should stop and figure out who this person is.

The truth is often somewhere in-between the extremes. We won’t know all our characters at the start, but we have ideas about at least one… We may be planners or pantsers, but internal consistency is vital to creating a publishable story (even if the internal consistency is hard to see on a first read).

For character design, it’s more a case of do you ask yourself “what am I building” or “WTF did I just build”. We need to be flexible with our character dossiers. We can build them before, during, or after our first draft. But they should probably exist before the end of the second. It’ll help us get the story right in the end.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. Take care of your characters. I’ll take care of mine. And of course, see you next post!

Published by Farangian

I'm a writer (fiction and non fiction) with a Masters in Psychology. I am also a sculptor, metal smith, lapidary, tutor/trainer, and eternal student. The name Farangian comes from the name of a fantasy world I created called Farangia. That name comes from Farang with is a term that the Thai use for westerners.

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