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Outlining a Character

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Creating a new character can be one of the best parts of the writing process. You get to build a whole new person (or animal or inanimate object) that didn’t exist before. But as much as I want to jump right in and write down every idea I have, I have learned over the years that it is better for me if I do a little planning beforehand. So, I make a list of characters and then write down a bunch of things I want to know about them. I have interviewed characters in the past, but this is more of an organized outline than it is an interview. Here’s how it usually goes.

Characteristics: While I may not mention every detail of how a character looks, I need to have it in my head to feel fully connected to the character. What color is their hair? How tall are they? I also include personality traits or any weird quirks in this category. Do they bite their nails? Do they have anxiety? (If it’s one of my stories, the answer is YES!) Do they have a crush on another character? What is their mood most of the time? While it would probably be more organized to list these things out with bullets, I usually write everything out in one big paragraph as it comes to me.

Backstory: I also want to know what my characters have been through in their past. What were their parents like? Did anything traumatic happen in their childhood? Did they have a bad breakup that they are still hurting from? I may not use all of this information in the story, but it helps shape the character and how they react to other people. It also may explain their flaws. If they have a hard time trusting people, is it because of something in their past? Most likely. If they flinch when someone yells too loudly, is it because they were in an abusive situation? Maybe. While it is fun to come up with what a character looks like, it can be just as fun figuring out what their backstory should be.

Relating to Others: This part usually comes a little later, once I’ve thought about what the main plot points are going to be, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. In this section, I mainly try to figure out how the characters relate to each other. Are they family? Friends? Enemies? Is one character friends with another but secretly jealous of them? This is also where I figure out who is in the important scenes. If my main character murders someone, is there anybody there with them? Accomplices? Witnesses? When my main character has a panic attack, what character would be the one to step in to help them feel better?

Like/Dislikes: This stuff could be under characteristics, but I tend to make it its own category because if this stuff is actually used when I’m writing, it’s very sparingly. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Whether my character likes Katy Perry or Ozzy Osbourne might change how they act in a certain scene or it could just be a reference I add in. This section can include movies, books, music, food, or even their favorite color. I never know until I actually start writing if these things will factor into the story at all. They could end up being a major element or not be mentioned at all.

I first started this outlining process when I wrote my first piece of fanfiction (What’s up Once Upon a Time fandom?) and I found I went back to it again and again to remind myself what I wanted from my characters. What techniques do you use to come up with your characters? Do you plan or do you let the characters create themselves while you write the story?


About the author: Sarah Perchikoff is the Brand Curator at the Writer's Workout and a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing. When she isn't writing, she is playing with her miniature dachshund, Gracie, navigating through fandom posts on Tumblr, or eating another extra-large order of french fries. You can find her on Twitter @sperchikoff or running The Writer's Workout Tumblr page.

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