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.