How do you outline characters?

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Blog Me MAYbeWednesdayMay I ask something about you?

How do you outline characters?

I know, I know. No one really wants to be asked this question because we all desire to be seat-of-pants writers who just have brilliant, coherent and complex stories flow from our brains to our fingertips to the word document. Please forgive me up front if I don’t believe you if you claim this particular style of writing. Writing is frequently termed a craft for a reason, and novels take crafting. Careful and frustrating crafting.

Now, I might believe there exists a person who can store all the complex character histories and overlapping plot arcs in their mind, but I am certainly not this kind of person. Outlines and character profiles and scene cards linked together with string & thumb tacks always feel tedious and not-so-fun when I’m doing them at the very early stages of a novel, but when I’m towards the end, or when I’m rewriting, that’s when they become inevitably useful.

This isn’t to say I don’t write-as-I-go a little bit. I do have a “zero draft” of the novel, which is essentially sketches of scenes and exchanges of dialogue and descriptions of settings. Most of the time the only way I can get a feel for a particular piece of character development, or plot pacing, or location is to sit and write it down. But those are very rudimentary and always used to fill in the pieces of my outlines. The first draft will be written post-planning stage.

For Noveling through Summer I am using a 10-scene plot outline that I swear by, and though I have it only partially and roughly filled in, I’m not too worried that it’s the proper format for me to use as I go forward.

But I keep getting stuck on a useful format for a character profile & history. I do have a index card system that will, I believe, be very helpful when I need a quick reference to something about a character. However, I’ve got extensive histories of characters written out in bullet points, and little diagrams about what sorts of scenes these histories will greatly impact or minorly impact. It’s all a larger, more complex history that must know, and that the reader will gradually come to learn, and I can’t quite sort out how to format these histories in a way that’s easily referenced.

An Update: From all the comments, I feel a need to update this post a bit. I am only doing extensive character profiles for my narrator, Vera, and the ghost, Lennon. For two reasons, and both reasons are equally important to me. First, they are foils to one another. Yup, I am purposefully writing in a foil relationship — the more I have come to imagine Vera and Lennon, the more I realized they foiled one another a lot. Knowing that, I have decided it’s important for me to know a pretty extensive history for them so I know when to bring in moments of foiling(?) and when to let them stand on their own. Second, Vera and Lennon have had very tragic pasts, and I want to give both them and any readers who may relate a whole lot of justice and respect.

Thus today’s question — what sort of outlining or planning tools / strategies do you use for characters (or heard of someone else using, or read in a book that you thought might be useful but never tried)?  



  1. I’m interested to know too. You already know, B, that this is my first time doing character outlines and I just grabbed one of the many outlines that appeared on Google. I’d change in a second if a new way that works better was presented.

  2. I have my characters take all sorts of personality and intellegence tests. Introvert/Extrovert, Intuitive/Sensate, Judger/Perceiver, Thinker/Feeler, Management/Leadership. I also give them the Hartman’s Color Code test, and a test used for identifying values. Giving my charcters these tests makes me ask myself what would they say and why and therefore I get a better feel for who they are in the story. I record their answers and scores and keep them on my computer. Every character has a file and in their file is the test scores, a page on physical description and another for any misc. notes. I also have a spreadsheet that acts as a timeline that I can add important events to.

  3. Usually characters and storylines just organically come to me, and then I get to know them more over the years. (I’ve literally grown up with a lot of my characters.) A lot of my books and storylines have been memorized backwards and forwards in my head for years, before getting a chance to write them down or type them up, and some interesting things have happened with that extra percolation time. Though in my very early days, I did sometimes do brief profiles of characters, like describing physical appearance and important events in their pasts. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m predominantly right-brained, but the idea of exactly plotting and planning everything out in advance doesn’t seem very fun or creative to me, and goes completely against the way I’ve always written, with stories just naturally flowing out of me.

    • I don’t think it’s UNcreative to plan and outline — and I can’t finish a novel without the major scenes known. It’s not like I outline every single little thing that happens in a book, but I do need to know the beginning, the point of no return, the climax, and the ending before I actually write a draft. And as other scenes in the middle come to me, I usually jot them down in bullet points because I do forget them between when I think of them and when I’m at that point in the novel.
      I commend you if you can remember all the little details and big details and medium details in your head, but I’ve never found a reason to — I figured out a few years ago writing things down, creating profiles and outlines, it let that creative juice out of my head in a constructive way and let me spend more of my creative energy on actually writing because I wasn’t also trying to keep everything straight.

    • For years, I used this same method. I’d insist that fun was taken away if I planned at all, allowing myself to read along the plot that I’d previously imagined as if I was a reader, rather than the writer. Looking back on all those manuscripts, the biggest problem is their pacing. Because I chose not to plot, too many unnecessary scenes got added in, ones that should have had more emphasis got pushed into the background, and the story wasn’t as well written as it could have been. I decided I didn’t want my plots and characters to suffer because I believed preparation wasn’t fun anymore.

      Since then, I’ve realized that outlining really does help more than one would think and makes editing it afterwards so much easier.

  4. I am not a diagram and post-it note person. I usually try to create my characters by deliberate day-dreaming. I entertain myself with little stories in my head about the character, and not necessarily stuff from the novel. I create their “deleted scenes” and imagine them as children and so forth. It helps make them more well-rounded I think. If I struggle with a character, sometimes I do character worksheets, there are some good ones in the Writing the Breakout Novel workbook.

    • I am definitely a “deleted scenes” and “deliberate day-dreaming” person — in fact, I really like that term, “deliberate day-dreaming.” But all of those just help me fill out a character profile. I also speak-out dialogue, and occasionally recruit friends to read other characters’ lines for me so I can really hear a scene.
      Obviously all writers have character profiles, even if they do keep them in their heads, but I find that’s putting a lot of mental energy towards something that’s just as easy to write down — and writing it down helps me find the problems with my characters — both problems that create good sorts of conflicts in a novel and problems that just don’t work at all in a novel, and must be altered constructively.

  5. Honestly, I don’t use much when I’m first starting a project. I did very little planning/outlining for OH, which is why I’ve had to edit it so much. I had a general sense of the beg and where I wanted to end when I started it. I had little character sketching. I knew Alex had a quick temper and I had her basic family history. And I didn’t get bored writing OH at all. But, on the other side, as you know I’ve had to edit/revise quite a bit because of that. In that sense, having a clearer sense of plan and characterization would have been beneficial. *I should add, though, that I did have the ultimate series arc relatively so I was able to put in hints and foreshadowing for later books.
    The reason I chose not to plan with OH was because the book I was working on before it (now shoved in a drawer never to be seen), I planned like crazy. Complete character sketches, every scene was outlined to a t. And eventually it led me to be horribly bored and I hated it. So I went into writing OH with the intention of going with as little planning as I ( a typical planner when it comes to everything) could.
    So, for the two drafts for noveling through summer that I want to write, I plan on finding (hopefully) a happy medium.
    So, now that I went that long route to answer, I am going to use a very basic character sketch for this summer. One thing I found that I like is a scene map which resolves around certain character things. For example, characters past traumas. Then you put a few notes for a scene to show that or be influenced by. Same with characters strength and weakness etc. But I also ave to be honest and say that some of that stuff I really don’t know till I get writing.

    • You bring up the very good point of avoiding boredom. I completely agree that planning EVERYTHING out would make most writers very, very bored when they were actually writing.
      Finding the happy medium, as you say, is an arduous task and one that is tweaked (I think) for every book. I imagine some books take more planning, and some less. A small series of short stories I once wrote took very little planning — it all came pretty easily because I knew my narrator so well that telling a story through her mind was very simple for me to do. This story though, Vera is complicated and she’s wounded and, as you know L, I want to do all of that justice. I by no means want to plan everything about her out, but she has a very influential history that is something I should know before writing so I know when to bring it in.
      Which brings me to ask — where is this scene map you speak of? Is it in a book I own or could you send me something about it because it sounds perfect for what I need to accomplish with Vera.

  6. Character outlines have always been one of my favorite parts of writing, for some reason. I usually write their “bios” because I can’t understand what’s going on in their heads unless I know what has influenced their lives, of course. But the trick is to write it authentically…I have to write from inside their heads but still do it from my window of perspective so it’s real. It’s enough to drive me crazy. Really. Sometimes, though, I don’t do character outlines at all because that ruins the authenticity of the moment that I’m writing in.

    • I like what you say about authenticity here — there is definitely a hard balance to strike between authentic from the character and authentic from the author.
      My narrator, Vera, has a very terrible childhood — so I wrote out the clinical / medical version of it, how it might appear to someone distanced from her, and then I also had her narrate her own story to the 3 other major players in the novel. She will tell each of them a version of her childhood, and knowing how each version differs has helped the “big picture” of her past seem more authentic to me. Of course, I didn’t do those things in that order — I had the idea for the scene where she narrates her childhood to a close co-worker, and I wrote it out, and it’s not the best writing but that was the Ah-ha! moment for what all she’d been through. Then I went back and really covered all my bases with her bio — so that I had every version necessary of it. It’s been a load of fun to work on.

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