Deb Joanne’s Fun But Inefficient Method of Character Development

I’m a pantser*. I should get that out of the way right now, so you understand where I’m coming from when I say I build my characters in a very backwards way—sort of like building a brick wall from the top down. Which, of course, doesn’t make a lot of sense, nor is it the best way to do things. But it’s how I roll. Please bear with me.

When I begin writing a story, I usually start with an idea or a ‘what if’ statement. Like: What if someone got hit by lightning and could suddenly hear ghosts?

So then I have to create a main character. And she or he needs to learn something and have some personal growth in the span of the book. And he or she probably needs to find someone to kiss (in my books, anyway) and encounter conflicts, and triumph over her conflicts and then tadaa! the book ends on a happy, satisfying note.

Sounds easy, right? Except, what is it that the character needs to learn? And what does she need to get past and WHO will she kiss? And most importantly, who IS she? Does she come from a good family? Does she have brown hair? Gingivitis? A facial tick? Does she twirl her hair when she’s nervous? Pee a little when she laughs? Is she a vegan? Does she hate the color red? How will she react if someone yells at her/stomps on her foot/kisses her unexpectedly?

Who IS this person?

Well the answer to that, when I begin a book, is: I don’t know. And that comes from being a pantser. I build my characters as I go, which means that halfway through the book, my character could do something or say something that makes me realize a part of her personality that I hadn’t perceived earlier. There are always little AHA! moments in my drafts, which also means that first drafts are ALWAYS ugly and messy and my characters are never as fully developed as they are after draft four (or four-hundred, as the case may be).

I personally think this is a terrible way to write and I certainly don’t advise it, but it’s what works for me AND is the best way for me to write, because A. I HATE writing outlines and character sketches and B. discovering who my characters are as they face the situations I put them in, is so much fun and is actually an organic way to figure out who they are. So it’s more work at the end because I need to go back and edit and layer in their personalities and fix quirks that I first got wrong.  But like I said, it’s fun. And why am I writing if it’s not fun?

Now what about you – how do you build your characters? Do you sketch them out? Or just throw them in and see how they react to you torturing them?


*Dear Mom, a pantser is a writer who doesn’t outline, but uses the ‘fly by the seat of her pants’ method of writing. In other words, when I sit down to write a book, I have no supplemental outline, character sketches or real idea of a plot arc in my head. I usually start with four or five plot points that will happen in the book and then go from there. This may seem like a ridiculous way to write a book, and I agree, and I’m even thinking I may need to do something about it, but for the time being, this is how I work. You’re welcome for that little tidbit of insight into how your daughter writes.

P.s. how’s Florida? Come home soon – we have a party to plan.

16 Replies to “Deb Joanne’s Fun But Inefficient Method of Character Development”

  1. Dear fellow pantser – thank you for not skirting the topic. When writing fiction, I know the start of the story, I know the ending of the story, I know the final crash bang boom that will get us to the end of the story. I know the MC and what he/she needs to learn to get through the crash bang boom. Then the story fills in with copious edits, a zillion dead darlings and a whole lot of work. When I try to outline my heads screams, “But we aren’t THERE yet!” I can’t write chapter 15 when I don’t know what happens in 12, 13, 14. I admire the book on sticky notes on a billobard in the backyard writer for the ability to foresee far better than I can.


    1. Kim, thank you for outing yourself as a fellow pantser. It’s nice to know I’m not alone! I’m a very linear writer as well and absolutely can’t write anything out of order, either. I do need to hone my outlining skills for the business part of writing, but I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy writing outlines, because for me, the joy of writing is the discovery as I go.

  2. I’m excited for this week’s topic–and excited to hear snippets about how everyone constructs/deconstructs their characters for the very reason you said, Joanne: everyone has a different method to their madness. And, like so many things, it evolves with every book.

  3. I’m a dedicated pantser too, so I can relate. My characters come to me first, and the plot grows around them. If I had to figure out everything ahead of time, I’d hit a brick wall. (I will, of course, go into more detail on Friday. *grin*)

    1. That’s so interesting that you get the characters first. I guess this explains why my drafts tend to be more plot-based than character-based. Can’t wait until Friday to hear about your process.

  4. With MWF Seeking BFF, I started out as a pantser too (this was a phrase I didn’t know until today. Thanks Joanne!) With the intro I just sat down and wrote, to get it all out. As the year progressed and things happened to me that I didn’t want to forget, ai would leave post-it notes that said things like “chap 7: Improv! Second City factor!” By chapter 14 my desk was lined with scribbles on post it notes. Not exactly an outline, but the closest thing my chaotic mind could come to!

    1. So glad to educate, Rachel! Pantser is definitely a fiction writer’s term, but it seems we’re not alone in our process. I love stickie notes, too! They are totally the chaotic writer’s answer to real notes!

  5. Hi All from Florida,

    Hey Daughter if your a panster it’s okay with us because you are a great writer and we are very proud of how you write and who you are. I don’t knlow if I want to come home it is so sunny and warm here in Florida. (I am coming home in 10 days, I know I have to plan a party for my favourite author and I am ready willing and most of all able). You know what J thanks for explaining what a Panster is (cause you know I would have called and said what is a Panster).
    You know Debs I have learned more lingo about writers, books and characters here than all the books I have read, Thank You to you all.
    Stay tuned to the adventures of party planning for SMALL, MEDIUM AT LARGE. You are all welcome. Until next week have a great Deb week from the sunny south.

    1. Only party-planning for your favorite author could pull you away from all that wonderful sun, Marcia!

      Have a wonderful rest of your trip–and yes, we are looking forward to hearing all the planning news!

    1. Marcia, do you mean join you for the party or where you are in Florida right now? Because I can be packed in ten minutes!

      But seriously, I so wish I could be a part of this celebration. As Joanne can attest, I’ve been throwing about the idea of a Deb get-together. Which would include, of course, Mothers-of-the-Debs.

  6. I am in for the get-together just let me know where and when and I am there. You are more than welcome we have one more week and extra bedroom with your own ensuite bath. Or if that does not work than come to Joanne’s signing and you can have two bedrooms and your own bath in the loft of our home.

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