The Pact

Recently a man I’d just met asked me about outlining. He’d heard how one author he likes outlines using post-it notes. I told him how some writers outline extensively, some outline roughly, and some are more organic, not outlining at all but allowing the characters and plot to unfold, so that the writer is also the first reader. He was fascinated by the idea that characters take over and have a life of their own. So the conversation then moved on to how that’s true for all writers, whether they outline or not. Outlines don’t always guarantee the story will move in the plotted direction.

Which got me thinking, of course.

I don’t outline, and have posted about that before. This conversation though, made me realize that by not outlining, I place a great deal of trust in the characters. I’m not saying that I don’t have a rough idea in my mind about who they are, and I always know what the last line of a story is before I start, so that the plot is actually discovering the path to the ending. But I trust the character to know what they want, to tell me if I’m going the wrong way, to tell me their story, and to be able to carry the plot.

People who outline also trust their characters, but it seems to me that the trust is tempered with a strong foundation. Rather like parenting, when you send your child out into the world, trusting them to do the right thing, and knowing that you have given them a strong compass. Outlines, to me, must be like that compass. Whereas, with me not outlining, I just nudge the characters off the edge and go along for the ride as they fall, or soar. (I don’t parent like that, by the way.)

Then there’s the trust between a reader and the characters. As a reader, I trust the character to be believable, to make me care about them, to make me cheer them on, and to make me live vicariously through them. I want to go along on the adventure with them, not simply be an observer, as sometimes happens in books when characters are not fully developed. To me, that problem is usually a result of the author telling me too much, and not showing me the character. So, I put a lot of faith in both the writer and the characters, when I open a new book. And there’s nothing worse than having that trust betrayed and discovering the anticipated new book is boring and flat.

Finally, there’s the pact between the reader and the author. I trust, when I pick up that new book by a favorite author, that I’m going to spend some time with old friends. That I am going to meet some new ones I’ll care about, that I’m going to be placed in a world as real as the one I live in, and I’m going to go for a great ride. I hate when that pact is broken, especially when it’s an author that I have followed for a long time. Yes, it’s unrealistic to expect someone to put out a book at 100% every time, but then I never said my trust was realistic. Especially when it comes to my favorite authors.

This makes me realize how much there is between writer, reader, and characters. I knew it was a strong bond before, of course, but I just never thought too much about it from the trust angle.

So do you feel that sense of trust in the author or characters when you pick up a book? Why do you trust, or not trust? I’d love to know as it will help me as a writer.

Soaring with feet on the ground

Soaring with feet on the ground

3 thoughts on “The Pact

  1. I’ll talk to people who tell me they loved Hunger Games “until the last one” or didn’t like how Harry Potter got “angsty” in book five, and I’m almost always the one saying, “Really? It made sense to me.” I don’t think I’m an uncritical reader, because when I don’t like something I get really cranky about it (I think I was the only one in my book club who didn’t love Atonement), but once I’ve become attached to fictional characters and their authors, I tend to accept them as they are — even if they occasional do things that make me raise an eyebrow. Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn and Troy, for instance: I love them but I’ve always found their painting conversation in their first meeting quite unlikely. I just don’t believe people would talk about a painting-in-progress that way. But I go with it, because I’m fond of these characters, and because Marsh also painted so I’m allowing that maybe painters and art lovers of the 1930s might have had a conversation that seems stilted to me.


    • This is interesting. It’s almost like the way a friendship is. We enjoy someone’s company, we allow them in our lives, we love them for who they are, even when there might be a quirk that drives us nuts, or when they do something we simply do not understand. Yet they are still friends and we still want them in our lives and want to spend time with them. That’s how I see your relationship with authors from what you say above. Makes me wish I was a better friend to authors I like. I tend to be less forgiving if the trust is broken. I’ll have to work on that.


      • Yes, I do think of these books and authors as my friends (even if the authors don’t know it 😉 ). Maybe you don’t need to worry about working on forgiveness with authors you like though — after all, there are those friends who are always forgiving even when we don’t deserve it, and there are other friends whose ruthlessness holds us to a higher standard than we’d otherwise use (even if sometimes we have to temporarily resent them for it). 🙂


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