When it comes to writing a novel, there are two main camps of writers: SOTPs (seat-of-the-pants writers who start writing and see what happens) and plotters (those who outline the story, then follow the outline). Those are the two most accepted/talked about ways to approach a novel, but I believe in a third method – character-led writing. Before I discuss that, let’s look at SOTP writing and plotting, then I’ll explain how I discovered character-led writing.
These are the writers who sit down with an idea and just see what happens. The idea usually revolves around a plot or a character.
Maybe they’ve always wanted to write a murder mystery set in Costa Rica – they don’t necessarily care how old the characters are or what will happen to the characters as long as they’re somehow tied to the murder victim and eventually end up in Costa Rica. Or maybe they have a character they’ve always wanted to write about. They start with a 70-year-old grandma living in Harlem who discovers she’s a multi-millionaire, then they write and see what happens to her!
- There are no barriers to the creative process because nothing has been finalized. A writer can take the story in any direction.
- You can start sooner. All you need is an idea, then you can start writing!
These manuscripts will often require more editing, as incomplete storylines or inconsistent characters tend to pop up due to minimal planning.
As the word suggestions, this technique involves creating a plot line and working from that. Often these types of writers will create an outline or some type of summary to follow as they write. Plotters might write a chapter-by-chapter outline or a character arc outline; they might create a Pinterest board or storyboard; they might write a 10-page synopsis explaining what’s going to happen.
Regardless of the technique, the result is the same: plotters know where the story starts and where it’s going to end. Their pre-writing work (the plotting) fills in all the holes between the beginning and end.
- The pre-writing plotting guides their creativity so they’re less likely to leave plot holes or create unbelievable characters.
- Because of their planning, plotters’ manuscripts may need less editing because they addressed potential plot and character issues during the plotting process.
It may take several weeks (or months) to work out all of the plot elements to their satisfaction, so it may take a while before the writing actually starts.
Let me start by saying that I’ve tried writing according to both of the main novel writing styles, and I failed miserably at both. Here’s what happened:
SOTP: I sat down and wrote my first novel in six weeks. I had no idea what would happen (and I didn’t really understand much about fiction writing at the time), so I just wrote. Ten years later and that story is still unpublished.
I’ve gone back to work on it (because I love the characters!), but the whole thing is a mess. While editing I kept asking myself why I would write this or what did that have to do with anything? Sure, I wrote 80,000 words in six weeks, but they didn’t make much sense.
Plotting: For my next attempt, I wrote a chapter-by-chapter outline. It looked great. I had 25 chapters and I knew what would happen in each, whose POV each chapter was in, and how they all tied together.
But then I started writing.
One chapter ended up 27 pages long. The next chapter only have four pages. Even though I thought I’d anticipated every obstacle and detour, I only followed my outline for about a third of the book, then I ended up with a bunch of SOTP chapters that needed lots of editing.
That’s when I discovered a new-to-me option: character-led writing.
When it comes to fiction, I’m all about the characters. I appreciate when they’re involved in an interesting plot, but when I thought about my favorite books, movies, and TV shows, I realized that the thing I loved most about them were the characters. Then I realized why SOTP writing and plotting didn’t work for me: I wanted to focus on the characters.
The next time I sat down to write, I asked myself, “What would happen if this type of woman/man found herself/himself in this type of situation?” Then I created my character sketches and GMCs for my main characters. Then I kept asking, “What if I did this to her/him?”
Sometimes I’d stall, so I’d go to the end of the book. Being a romance writer, I knew I had to get the boy and girl together, so I would ask, “What would have to happen for her to admit that she loves him (or vice versa)?” While this may sound like plotting, the primary difference is that I didn’t focus a situation or setting where the love announcement would happen, I just knew that it would happen.
At its core, character-led writing is similar to plotting, but instead of creating plot elements that you want to include, you focus on the types of characters you want to create. It also shares the same pros and cons.
- Character-led writing guides the creative process so writers are less likely to leave plot holes or create unbelievable characters.
- Because of the planning, character-led writers’ manuscripts may need less editing because they addressed potential plot and character issues during the plotting process.
It may take several weeks (or months) to work out all of the characters’ qualities to your satisfaction, so it may take a while before the writing actually starts.
How you choose to write is entirely up to you – there’s no wrong way to do it, just do what works best for you.
How do you prefer to write? How did you figure that out?