Edit warning: I seem to have upset my sister (who also writes) so I've added more detail to no.2.
This question has been troubling me for a week now.
I met the terms - plotter / planner and pantser / discoverer - rather recently and I took an immediate dislike to their radicalism. Therefore, I ignored them. Now, @what's question has forced me to think about it.
First of all, I took to the web searching for those common 'type of writers' thingies (I include blogs, articles, infographs, cartoons, you-name-it under the concept of 'thingies').
Naturally one can't just classify writers. First we must determine what exactly we are classifying:
...by 'type of text produced'? You've got academic writers, technical writers (subtypes galore whitin that one), journalists, columnists, novelists, ... Only, no, that's not what we're classifying.
...by 'how one organises ideas for an essay'? We're getting close, but not yet. Still, you may want to take a look at this article on the University of Notingham's website. It classifies essay writers in four distinct classes:
- the Diver, which is basically the Pantser
- the Grand Plan Writer, which is basically a research-addicted Plotter
- the Architect Writer, which is a diagram-addicted Plotter
- the Patchwork Writer, which kicks off with some idea, moves them around to find connections and adds more ideas as they sprout (lets call it a Pantser-Plotter hybrid)
Of course, what we want to classify is...
how a fiction writer organises his writing (plot, characters, locations, ...)
I have no idea who originated the terms plotter / pantser (could have thought of another term for 'pantser', it always makes me think of underwear), but it's everywhere on the Internet as a great dichotomy.
@ggiaquin suggested it should be seen as less of a dichotomy and more of a spectrum. He's not alone. This blog mentions the hybrid for those that get caught somewhere in the spectrum. But it still doesn't satisfy me.
The British author Zadie Smith delivered a lecture in 2008 which shows she sticks with the dichotomy, rather than the spectrum, but she gives it nicer (IMHO) names: macroplanner (or plotter) and micromanager (or pantser).
I picked those terms and broke them apart to create five different classes of writers.
- the planner, generally speaking, dislikes chaos. He's organised and neat. Therefore he wants his work to be structured, but how much so?
1.1 the macroplanner works with large scale plans: events, characters, places, everything is mapped, thought over, analysed and adjusted in order for the whole machine (read 'novel') to work with absolute precision. There may be little surprises along the way but they'll tend to be seen as rebellions to be quickly submitted. The characters do not control the writer. Ever.
1.2 the microplanner works with small scale plans. Most likely, most elements are carefully pre-crafted (say, events) while others are only partially fleshed out (say, characters). Or perhaps the main plot and the main character are carefully decided in advance and the subplot gets relative freedom to do as please (within clear boundaries, naturally). Characters may take a life of their own on occasion but the writer will quickly remind them to behave and conform.
- the manager, generally speaking, dislikes restrictions. He's flexible and deals with what comes when it comes if it comes. He's laid-back and craves the excitement of discovery. He wants his work to come forth naturally, but how much so?
3.1 the micromanager starts with chaos (at least I tend to see nothingness as a face of chaos) and gives it order. Literally. He starts with an idea, or a vision (like a picture, a scene or a dialogue), and then he lets things evolve. The story is already there, he just needs to uncover it. The characters rule. Until a certain moment where order starts to descend back into chaos (the traditional chaos of too much disorganised information). Then the writer stops, organises all the information that has come forth so far and may or may not take the moment to trace an outline of what has happened so far. Then he can continue, bravely on, to where no Man has gone before.
3.2 the macromanager works amidst chaos, from the nothingness type of chaos to the tornado of information type. The characters are encouraged to take a life of their own and do as they will. In the worst case scenario, the writer will write down a random scene of daily life to learn a bit more about the character before sending it into the novel itself (or during a break).
A bit unsequentially, let's talk about no. 2...
- the hybrid or the planning manager is a writer that needs plans and chaos in more or less equal measure but in different places. He may start with several plot points that are very detailed within themselves but are disconnected from one another; then, while writing, he'll discover how to connect them. Or maybe his characters allways start out with a couple of impressionistic strokes that the writing will give greater definition to later on. Or maybe he carefully plans a first part where B must cause A to happen and can't plan anything beyond it until he has finished the section and both characters and events have opened some much needed (and previously hidden) doors. Then he can go back to the designing table and decide the details of the next big plot point.
2.1 the top-down planning manager plans a big arc (or big picture) in detail. A must happen exactly this way so that B can then do exactly that. The little things under that arc? We'll see as they come.
2.2 the down-top planning manager plans key events in details and determines a set of restrictions that must be respected. As the story evolves, a bigger picture will slowly emerge.
2.3 the plot-first planning manager plans the setting and the main events in detail, then creates the character and lets them do as they wish in the fictional world (think an RPG with a laid-back GM that gives the PCs free reign to explore the world and choose their battles).
2.4 the character-first planning manager previously creates an intricately detailed character and gives it a deep problem. Then lets it search for a solution. Imagine: a parent overcome by grief at the loss of their only son trying to find a meaning to life.
PS: I apologise for not following PC but I'm an old school female who can accept that 'he' works just fine to refer to all the biological and psychological genders in the world (my native language makes it even more naturally so than English).
PPS: I had a British teacher when I first learned the clothes vocabulary so 'pants' will always mean 'underwear' for me. And, yes, 'pantser' does make me picture a person sitting at one of those swivel office chairs in their underwear. And if you have ever sat on one of those in summer while wearing shorts, you know doing so in underwear is beyond uncomfortable.