It’s the hallmark of weak editing and young writing: within the first chapter, the character has blue eyes and short, curly brown hair. But suddenly at the climax of the story, the character’s long, disheveled blond hair is obscuring his brown eyes.
What happened? I’ve yet to meet a reader who minds a shape-shifting character. But losing track of the details just reads like laziness.
What is a character outline?
A character outline is a tool that helps you keep track of details about your character(s) for fiction writing.
I’ve planned plenty of stories and rendered detailed character outlines before starting the novel. I’ve also run with the wind on characters in a story and had to scour the first dozen pages for my descriptions so that the characters kept their continuity.
Descriptions need to help your reader envision what’s happening. Discrepancies kick the reader out of their imagination and into analytical thinking as they try to remember why your character’s apparent lack of height seems to be wrong.
I know you know your characters. It just never hurts to keep track of your details in one place, namely, in an outline.
How to write a character outline
Character outlines on the fly
When you’re “pantsing” through a story, create another document to complement the story. Any time you add a detail about a character, go to that separate document and start noting it (or better, copy and paste the description into the separate document).
Keep a running tab of the details you add. When you’re getting ready to write descriptions as you get further into the story, you can refer to what you’ve already written very quickly and you know it will be consistent.
The kinds of details you should note as you go are the same as the list below. It may be helpful to keep a generic list that you fill out as you go for each of your characters.
Planning a character outline
If you’re planning your characters, here’s the kinds of details you can decide from the get-go:
- Full name
- Birthplace, where they grew up, where they live now
- Height, weight, hair color, eye color, defining features
- Family history, living family members, and where they live
- Clothing color/style tendencies
- Quirks, habits, notable speech permutations
- Skills, education, social class
- Friends, best friends, and enemies
- What is their pain tolerance, their general health, their mental health
On character design
During the planning phase, an outline is just a tool to notate the important stuff: imagining characters. As characters (even the narrator) are the lense through which we read a story, it’s important to create well-rounded characters.
While this will eventually become its own post (or series), here’s a brief conglomeration of good character-building:
- Flaws. Everybody has ’em. They can be glaring or subtle, but make sure your characters have them too.
- Purpose. What is driving your character? Every character has a goal and a purpose they are trying to achieve.
- Contradiction. How many times have you thought either of these things to yourself? “I know what I want to do but I don’t do it. I know what I don’t want to do but I’m doing it right now.”
- Passion. Everybody cares about something. Usually this aligns with their purpose, but people surprise us. So do characters.
- Struggle. Joe is naturally good at this, but sucks at that. Kendra is the worst at this, but has to do it for these reasons. Characters who don’t struggle are boring.
- Dialect. Youth speak differently than the elderly. Texans have an accent, but so do Bostonians. Everyone shouldn’t sound the same, but characters who hang out together will sound more similar than characters who never spend time together.
Now there are many different kinds of characters (protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, supporting role, bystander, etc.) and your story probably won’t have time to describe them in the detail that you can in an outline.
However, having a detailed outline of less important characters will help you write better interactions between them and your main character. And strong supporting characters may provide fodder for future stories.
You may have to cut a character out of a story, but if you still have an outline you can recycle their traits and history for another time. An outline then saves you the trouble of having to design more awesome characters!
What do you think—what kinds of details do you look at when you design characters? Do you use an outline or some other tool to keep track of your character details? What is the worst case of dis-continuity you’ve seen in a story/novel? Share in the comments!