Outlining a Novel IV

In part IV I’ll discuss character development. In part 1 I covered my basic steps in preparing to outline. In part II, we gave examples of some steps: developing a 1-line synopsis, which is then used to create a draft blurb, which  we used in part III to create a 4-paragraph summary.

In that summary, I threw out a few names, and for each I need a character summary. I also hinted at some other possible characters. Who leads the black-clad men, for example. Here’s my initial list of characters that were specifically mentioned:

  • John Sanders (MC) – mentally shattered bioborg soldier returning home
  • John’s mother – Susan Sanders, struggling single mom afraid of bioborgs
  • John’s best friend – Alex Gransen, New Chicago militia leader, also afraid of borgs
  • Mysterious Stranger – Michael Freiks, bioborg underground railroad member
  • Rat – hacker and conspiracy theorist with tons of information
  • Rosalyn – secretive bioborg soldier, now crippled, with daughter
  • Rosalyn’s daughter – Amy, 12 years old and grew up in foster care

From the summary we also will create more characters, particularly antagonists besides his best friend:

  • Major Dwight McCarry – leader of the black-clad men, main antagonist (must think he’s the protagonist, as do all main characters, even psychopaths).
  • Police Sgt Stafford – Corrupt police leader in John’s neighborhood
  • Peter Mueller – Leader of a gang in John’s neighborhood (we mentioned crime…)
  • Shadow Man – Michael Freiks’ unknown contact and handler for the underground railroad

For each main character I write a lengthy bio (usually 1/2 to 1 page) that includes:

  • Name / Age / Physical Description
  • Core Goal – this colors every decision they make. Whatever they do it must be consistent with this attribute. John’s Core Goal could be Seeks Redemption, or Wants Acceptance, or even Make Fractured Mind Whole Again. Although this won’t directly affect most interactions with people or locations, it will affect their subconscious decision-making process.
  • Inner Conflict (e.g., personality poles) – conflicting attributes that act as a filter during decision making. For example, our MC’s Conflict could be Vision Quest vs Inner Killer or, perhaps, Fitting In vs Leave Me Alone. Where Core Goal is subconscious, Inner Conflict is a conscious internal battle. Play with this until you have an Inner Conflict that will drive dramatic scenes and interactions. Ideally, at the end of the book the character resolves this conflict. If there are sequels, the evolution of the character in the prior book will set up a new Inner Conflict after sometimes lengthy pondering.
  • Personality Traits – Narcissistic, altruistic, hot-headed, killer reflexes, etc. These are guidelines for consistency in how the character approaches interactions and events.
  • History – briefly, from childhood events that shape his adult destiny to the events of adulthood that make him who he is today, or which suggest future plot hooks, and which the character can flash back to during inner monologues or conversations that explain his attributes (goal, conflict, traits).

It is these attributes that will create conflicts and tensions in the book! Although some conflicts may be outside this scope, such as an encounter with bandits, these traits will still affect each person’s reaction to those events. But for the most part the attributes of the MC and antagonist bash into each other throughout the book, driving the plot.

I also create locations, for which I’ll write 1 or 2-paragraph descriptions and so on – whenever characters return to a location, I am thereby assured that the descriptions are the same each time. I add new locations as I write, but starting locales need to be drafted up before writing starts.

  • New Chicago Ark – Overview
  • New Chicago Ark – Susan Sanders’ home
  • New Chicago Ark – Police Firebase
  • New Chicago Ark – Rich areas / Poor areas
  • Old Chicago – Overview

In the next step we will hit the ground running with our outline, which subsequently may suggest both new characters/locations and possibly necessitate revisions to our earlier steps.

Update (10/20/2015):

Here’s a tip I picked up somewhere (I think from Robin Laws) that greatly enhances characters and forces them to be more 3-dimensional. This information would, of course, need to be added to your character write-ups.

For each major character, pick something they want from another major character, and why that person won’t give it to them, at least not without a lot of effort. What they want should be fairly specific, and potentially obtainable. By doing this both characters gain depth and possibly some cool backstory. I try to spread the connections around so that every character has at least one person who wants something from them.

Sam Jones wants acceptance from Janet Price, an older female, because of his mommy issues (which are spelled out in his background, natch). She doesn’t want to give it to him because she refuses to be responsible for anyone else’s emotional wellbeing.

Then, pick one thing they want from the world, and why they are unlikely to get it. This should be a Holy Grail-type thing, a simple concept they quest for. This builds out your character’s morality, and may answer some questions about the society in which your story takes place.

Sam Jones wants “fairness”, but of course the world is unfair. His decisions should be influenced by this Holy Grail throughout the book. Character evolution can be guided by this. Perhaps Sam Jones eventually learns that he can’t force others to fit his notion of fairness and should stop trying to do so, but learns to live with that without despairing, while keeping to his own code.

You can play around a lot with this idea, but I hope you can see how it helps in fleshing out your characters, their motives, their personal code, etc.


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