Outlining your story – Characters

For the second part of my 4-part series on outlining your story, I wanted to talk about Characters. If you missed Part 1 – Tools, feel free to check it out.

Today is devoted to characters. They are the real backbone of any story. I’ve read many stories that had extremely weak plots, but the characters were hilarious, and thus the story was worth continuing. The opposite is rarely true: You may have an amazing unique setting, or the most absolutely riveting plot, but if the characters are flat, nobody is going along for the ride.

The first thing I will preface this with:

Just because you have a detail doesn’t mean you need to use it!

You may determine somebody’s birthday is June 23rd… You don’t have to make sure the story is set on that day, or near that day, or make age even a component of the story. Maybe your hero loves cats… You don’t need to put a cat in the story. At all. It’s just something to keep in the back of your mind while you write.

So that brings up the question of: Why bother?
If I’m not going to use the detail, why bother coming up with it.

Three reasons to flesh out the characters extensively:

1) You want to make sure you are building believable, three-dimensional characters. These details, hobbies, quirks, superstitions, traditions, whatever, make your character that much more likely to jump off the page.

2) You don’t want to accidentally contradict yourself. Imagine describing your heroine’s cute button nose… And then later describe her striking aquiline nose. That one’s obvious and (I hope) most editors would catch something like this. But what about the more subtle mistakes. Early on you talk to the villain’s mother and she comments that all little Timmy did when he was a kid was sit in a room building model trains. Later, when Timmy is talking to his minion, he outlines the elaborate tree house he built as a kid that gave him the carpentry skills he needed to build the trap. Those kind of details resound with your reader, and getting your facts straight up front will help.

3) You never know when the background gives you something you need. These details can either give you a link for a scene that you are struggling with (Actually, maybe he could notice the stamp on the General’s desk and that could get the conversation rolling since he collected stamps in college) or maybe it creates a constraint that you have to work around to create a more unique story (Crap. She’s lived in Florida her whole life. How’s she going to be driving across that much ice with no trouble?)

So what detail do I provide?

1) Physical – Get specific. I like to browse images until I pick a model. Then I do descriptions of face, hair, body, other notable features… And then other things like: What’s their walk like? Do they tend to slouch when they sit? Flounce into chairs rather than sit in them?

2) Quirks and Habits – Do they bite their nails? Smoker or non-smoker? Do they hate using public restrooms? Mumble to themselves? Finish other people’s sentences? Giggle when nervous?

3) Family and Friends – Any friends? Acquaintances? What are those relationships like? Does the character have a regular rapport with the barrista at Starbucks, but they don’t know each other outside of that? Are both parents alive? Grandparents? How old are they? Siblings? What’s the relationship? Extended family? What about enemies? Could somebody be harboring a grudge that might not make the main plot, but might be a nifty subplot?

4) Background – When was the character born? Anything significant about childhood? How often has the character had to move? Education level? Goals that have been met? Goals that have been abandoned? Prior marriages? Old girlfriends or boyfriends? Where do they work? How long have they been there? First job? Serial job quitter?

5) Mentality – Is the character spiritual? Religious? Political allegiance? Dominant mood? What would the character’s Myers Briggs be? Ambitious? Laid-back? Like to tell jokes that nobody laughs at except himself? Is this the one people go to when they need to vent? When they need to cry? Does this character seem to know everything going on with everybody and is willing to share with anybody? How stubborn?

Finally, one more technique I’ve seen is to interview your character. Write the interview from the perspective of the character. This can get you in the character’s head, and teach you a lot about how the character behaves. I use this when I really don’t know my character enough, and often the act of writing this gets me going enough to write something truly meaningful.

Conclusion

I don’t go to the same level of detail on all characters, but for your primary characters (POV characters, or characters that are in 25% or more of your scenes), I think it’s critical to dig this deep before you really dive in. Be prepared to revisit. You may have assigned a crippling fear of water that just doesn’t work when the character goes to Venice (or maybe it does!) As with all outline work, these are guidelines, and realistically should always be subject to change based on the needs of your story.

What level of detail do you go to with your characters?

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