Writing Tip: Character Outlines

Man writing with quill. You’ll find plenty of advice out there about outlining, the benefits of plotting vs. pantsing, etc. I truly believe there’s no “right” way to write — different things work for different people, and different methods may work better for different projects. But since I had an epiphany moment in my own writing, I thought I’d share and see if my method helps any of you.

Recently, I’d been struggling a lot lately with an idea I had for a novel. The spark of the story woke me up at 4:30am and refused to let me go back to sleep until I’d spent an hour jotting notes by cell phone flashlight (because the light switch was across the room, and who wants to get out of bed at 4:30am?). I was so excited about this story that I immediately started writing.

Two days later, I stalled. I stepped back and realized I had no idea where this story was going. I tried to plot out the whole book, got really excited again, started writing like crazy … and stalled again. I couldn’t even put my finger on it, I just knew the book felt off.

So I took a week off. I told myself I could plan, outline, etc. as much as I wanted, but that I would not write any scenes that would be a part of that story. I told myself nothing was set in stone, everything could be thrown out (and all of it will be — an entire five-subject notebook’s worth. I have no regrets.). Five days into my week off, I finished reading a fantastic book (because time away from writing just means more time for reading) that helped me finally realize what was missing: I wasn’t invested in the characters. And because of that, the plot felt flat and cliche. Characters drive the plot; if I don’t care about them, I won’t care about what they’re doing, or what’s stopping them from achieving their goals.

So I started thinking about the characters. Right away, I realized this will be a very character-driven novel. I was overwhelmed by the number of characters clamoring for attention. I’d toyed with the idea of having multiple viewpoint characters, but the more I thought about the characters, the bigger the scope of the story became, and the less certain I was about who should be telling it.

Then the planner in me stepped in and ordered me to start taking notes. (Side note, is it weird that I like to obsessively plan everything else in my life but loathe outlining my books?) I had four key players who were related to each other in several complicated ways. Some of them needed others’ help to achieve their goals; some would be hindered by the others. In some cases, characters had conflicting goals, one of which required a character’s help and another of which would put those same characters in opposition. My head was a mess of friendships and betrayals.

I decided to make a character outline for each of the four key players. I listed all of his or her relationships with the other characters, defining moments that shaped that character, and the character’s goals. Not only did this help me figure out where my plot was going, it helped me determine whose story this was. While all four of these characters are key players, two of them experience most of their defining moments before my book begins. These defining moments make them who they are, determine what their goals are, and drive their actions throughout the book. The other two characters have several defining moments that occur during the novel, so I knew they needed to be the ones telling the story.

Now I cannot wait to dive into writing this book. With just a little outlining, I feel like I have a solid handle on who my characters are and where this story is going.

Have you written character outlines like these? Did they help?

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One thought on “Writing Tip: Character Outlines

  1. Pingback: Outlining for people who don’t like outlines | Thinking Outside the Books

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