How to Outline a Character
Characters are the best part of our stories, but they are also the hardest elements to outline.
How many times have you known what a character was supposed to do only to have them surprise you when they do the opposite?
It’s almost impossible to outline a character entirely before you put them into a scene. You can have lots of details, know their different layers and motivations, but, in the end, they are just like us. You never know exactly how they will react until they do.
Writing a character is a constant work throughout your story because characters change and evolve through their experiences. If you aren’t careful, you can end up having your character make decisions or do things that at the moment feel natural, but in the larger scheme of the story, don’t fit together. A strong outline, however, will keep you on course.
Here are our tips for outlining memorable and believable characters:
1. Jot down the basic details:
How they look, their likes, dislikes, what they want, any flaws that come to mind. This doesn’t have to be exhaustive, just capture the easy stuff.
2. Decide on an archetype:
This will give you some direction or ideas as you plan your framework for the character. For example, the Lover archetype, someone who is guided by the heart but naive and irrational. Or the Hero archetype, someone who rises to meet a challenge and saves the day, but is overconfident.
3. Dive deeper:
Ask yourself what other characters and aspects of the setting have a strong effect on this character. What were some defining events that shaped them? Add those other elements to the story, then describe their relationship to the character. One tip to keep this relationship text short is to give the character’s opinion on the other elment and later as you write, update the description to capture the moment that exemplifies the character’s relationship to it in the story.
4. Put your character in a very difficult situation and see how they react:
When you place a character in challenging circumstances, it is an opportunity to reveal who they are at their core. Let your character guide you and you’ll end up discovering new truths about them that you would have never imagined. Be prepared to refine their motives and flaws.
5. Outline the Character’s arc:
This is where you detail how your character will grow and evolve throughout the story. The challenge with doing this part well is that you also need to know what challenges the character will face. Generate plot ideas as you create new challenges to throw at your character.
As you flush out your narrative arcs, you may discover that your character still surprises you, but now that you’ve outlined the core part of them, you can check those against what you have planned and decide which ones make sense and which are good ideas to reuse in another story.
This is a lot to keep in mind at once, but Lynit was built specifically to address this. Lynit organizes all the information you need for a character’s development at every stage of their journey. Our unique visualizations will reveal your story’s structure in a new way and allow you to move between writing, editing, and brainstorming seamlessly.
If would like more details on how Lynit works, check out our How It Works page.
Michael Green is the Founder of Lynit. He started the company unofficially back in 2018 when he was deep in the trenches of editing his first book. He had 500 pages, a lot of characters, multiple plots, and many notes on possible changes. To make sense of everything, he created the first version of the tool. Then he realized that other writers might find value in it too and decided to share. Find out more at www.lynit.app.