Characters and Outlining
When we prepare to write our NaNoWriMo novels, we make our usual big outlines, but we do more than just sketch out the plot. One of the things we try to do pretty early on is to make profiles for each of our major characters. We’ve talked about this before on this blog, and I’ve given some explanation of what these profiles look like, but just briefly, here’s the format:
Name: (full name, along with ranks, titles, or nicknames)
Age: (at the time of the story)
Born: (place and year of birth. Specific birthdate if it might be important in the story)
Family: (their names, years of birth and [if applicable] death)
Likes/Dislikes: (what they like and their hobbies, which other characters they get along with)
Physical Appearance: (height, hair and eye color, general build, any distinguishing characteristics)
Other Characteristics: (character traits, personality)
Other Facts: (usually a brief biography of the character)
Voice: (anything that makes this character sound different from others)
Once we’re done filling that out, we have a sense of the character’s personality and past history. We have some notion of what she might sound like.
Now we need to know our character’s goals. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” So what does the character want? We saw Jennifer Brozek on a panel at Gen Con this year, and she suggested that a writer has to know four things about a character: 1) Who is the character? 2) What does he want? 3) Why does he want it, and 4) What is he willing to do to get it?
We often try to include the answers to these questions in the character profile. And their implications for the outline and the plot should be obvious. After all, once you know that your protagonist, Jane, wants to win the State Fair Hog Calling Contest because her mother died competing in that same brutal arena ten years ago, and once you know that she is willing to lie, cheat, and steal in order to win, you’re halfway to having a story.
Now that we know what the character wants, we start thinking about how this character relates to other characters. One of the best ways to work out the relationships between your characters comes from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story. We’ve mentioned this book before; it’s one of our favorites. It was originally intended for screenwriters, of course, but it’s very helpful for novel writers, too.
In My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, Jeffery Alan Schechter suggests identifying your characters by their relationship to the protagonist, arranged as four pairs of people:
Hero: (the protagonist; the main character who is trying to accomplish something)
Villain: (the character who is trying to stop the hero from doing this)
Protector: (the main character’s moral compass)
Deflector: (someone who tries to pull the hero off the path)
Believer: (someone who instantly believes in and supports the hero)
Doubter: (someone who takes some convincing to believe in the hero)
Thinker: (a supporter of the hero who always acts rationally)
Feeler: (a supporter of the hero who always flies by the seat of his or her pants)
You don’t necessarily have to have eight separate characters; the same person could be, for example, the hero’s Protector and also his Believer. And characters don’t have to occupy the same role for the entire story.
Once we have our character profiles filled out, we then go through and identify these relationships for all of our POV characters—not just the character who is the designated “hero” of the story. This is incredibly helpful for pointing out holes in your plot and characterization. For example, when we did our most recent revision of the Quartet, we discovered (much to our horror) that we didn’t actually have a Villain for the first book. Oh, sure, we had bad people doing bad things, and there was a definite Villain for the overarching four-book series. But in the first book, there was no character who was actively trying to stop the Heroine from accomplishing her goal. So we invented one, to whom we referred as “Prince Antagonist” until we came up with a name for him.
Another example: I’m filling in my outline for one of my NaNo novels right now, and when I went to identify these relationships for one of my POV characters, I realized that she didn’t have a Protector, or a Believer, or a Feeler. Now it’s true that this character is on her own through much of the book, and most of the people with whom she interacts are trying to thwart her in one way or another. But when I looked at the empty spots on that list of relationships, I thought, “That just can’t be right.” Even if she’s on her own, she still has to have someone in her past who believed in her, or some mentor whose advice she still remembers.
Then I realized who her mentor had to be—a character from a previous story—and suddenly everything made sense. I had a much better idea why this POV character turned out the way she did, I had an opportunity to give this old character a cameo in the new book, and for the first time, the choice that this POV character is going to make at the climax of the story (to let her antagonist escape) made complete sense to me.
Once you have those relationships figured out, you can go through your outline and make notes about this. If Susan is the Heroine, and Bob is her Doubter, you can look at your outline and ask yourself, “Is there any scene here where Bob is actually being dubious of Susan?” If not, then you can add a scene where he is. Or if there’s a preexisting scene where Susan declares her intent to do something, and Bob will be present, you can make a note that Bob refuses to believe that she can do it.
If Mary is Susan’s Protector, how does the reader know that? Have you shown it? Is there actually a scene where Mary acts as Susan’s moral compass, telling her what’s right and what’s wrong? If there isn’t a scene like that, then there really should be.
And that’s one of the things I’ve been doing these past two weeks with the outlines for my two November novels. It really helps. Figuring out who your characters are and how they relate to each other makes it much easier to fill out your outline. If you get done with all this and your outline still looks rather sad and scrawny, though, don’t worry. Our next post in this series will be about how to bulk up your outline, so that your plot feels complete and satisfying to the reader.