Have you ever been writing a story and forgotten your main character’s hair color? Or developed a plot hole so big you don’t think there’s any way to salvage it?
Been there. Done that. Regretted it.
I always recommend at least a loose plot and character outline. But there are so many ways to do it, how are you supposed to choose one?
I briefly touched on my approach to character and plot outlines in my post on Six Steps to Starting Your Novel. Check that article out if you need more help on getting started!
I personally do both an arc and sketch for my characters. Think of the arc as the beginning, middle, and end of character development. Read Jeff Gerke’s Plot Versus Character for more information on character arcs.
The character sketch is the fun part! I love taking the Myers Briggs Personality Test for each of my characters. This test gives you detailed information on each personality type, which will help you shape your characters’ reactions to the events that occur in your story.
In addition to personality types, I also write up basic information, so it stays consistent throughout my novel. In my file, I break them up between external and internal characteristics:
Name, age, birthday, gender, race, and setting
This is the basic information you’ll need to create an image of your MC. My MC is a Caucasian seventeen-year-old girl named Hattie Whitaker, born in February of 2002 in southern Maine. This sets the stage for what she may look like and where she lives.
Physical description, clothing style, residence, and general disposition
Here is where you move past the basic information. Physical description can include hair, eyes, facial features, and other physical characteristics.
The clothing style may say something about your character that you want to portray to your audience. For example, Hattie wears her sneakers until they fall off her feet because her family is low-income. Make sure to note whether your MC can pull off their chosen clothing style.
You may need to describe where your MC lives, so you’ll want to write up a description of it. Make note of the first thing a visitor may notice about their home!
Family, friends, and pets
This is where you get to describe your MC’s relationship with their friends, family, and pets. You don’t have to go in-depth here. You just need a cheat sheet for reference!
Hobbies and fears
Give your MC hobbies, talents, and fears. These things will help you develop their core problem and the basis of your story.
This is your MC’s soul. Describe their soul in a single sentence. For example: Hattie’s kindness is as infinite as the universe.
Childhood event that shaped them
Everyone has some event from their childhood that changed their lives. It shapes their personalities or establishes a fear. Hattie saw her father hit her mother for the first time when she was three, and this is what pushes her to become the protector she is.
What is your MC ashamed of? Why are they afraid to admit it? What is at stake if that secret gets out?
Who they love most in the world
Who does your MC love most in the world? Why? And how does that affect them? Does that person know?
Driving ambition, greatest flaw, and greatest virtue
What drives your MC every day of their life? What holds them back from it? That can inspire the problem that your MC needs to face and overcome in your story.
What does your MC think their greatest flaw and virtue are? What do others think? Are these perceptions true?
What they do when no one is looking
This could be as big or as small as you want it to be. Your MC could pick their nose or have a whole secret life. It is entirely up to you!
You can include some, all, or none of this info! You get to decide how detailed your character sketch is.
I used the Four Act Structure as the basis for my plot outline. In the early days of my MFA program, I added subplots and secondary characters. That way I never accidentally dropped a line and didn’t pick it back up.
Here is a brief rundown of what my plot outline looks like for Lies that Bind.
- The Start
- The Inciting Incident
- Plot Point 1
- Pinch Point 1
- Midpoint (Plot Point 2)
- Between Plot Point 2 and Pinch Point 2 (this is totally optional, but I had important information introduced here)
- Pinch Point 2
- Black Moment
- Plot Point 3
- Final Battle
- The End
Check out the article I linked above on the Four Act Structure to get more details on each part of the outline!
When writing your characters and plot, I recommend looking at Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. When I was struggling to get Lies that Bind off the ground, I relied heavily on this book. It’s my saving grace, and I will always refer to it.
What do you guys think of my methods? Would you add to them? Take anything away? Let me know!