Thursday, January 13, 2011

Build a Character By Using an Outline

     I have trouble creating new, unique characters.  So far, the little niblets of characters that I use in my writing exercises are either extensions of my own personality or they were inspired by people I know.  I know that real life is a source of inspiration for new and experienced writers alike.  For instance, it's rumored that the Evil Boss-Lady in "The Devil Wears Prada" is inspired by the head of Vogue magazine.  However, I want to develop a character that is wholly the product of my imagination.  I also want her to feel real enough to "cast a shadow."*  But I don't know how to get there--I don't know how to move a character from flat to fully dimensional.  I have since discovered the "character outline."  This is a great tool to brainstorm information about my characters.  It consists of a very long list of questions.  Everything from their physical characteristics (Does she have a crooked pinky toe?) to their personality (Does he organize his socks by their fabric content?) to their favorite memory. 

     At first the length of the list looks intimidating and it feels like I am working harder rather than smarter.  In end, however, I am always glad that I have completed it because I know my character much better and he is realistic when I write him.  The character outline also becomes my reference as my character and her story develops.  I know that  she doesn't like birds because one took a dump on her head when she was ten years old.   It's also easier to maintain consistency because she's already written down.   I remember that her lisp comes out when she sings.   Making consistent changes becomes easier as well.  What  if she needs to be 55 instead of 32-- does that still mean she has young children? 

     The following character outline is from the Gotham Writer's Workshop (GWW).  It is free to the public; you can see this questionnaire and one other by clicking here.  Kitty Felone also has a great character outline on her site, DeviantArt.

1.      What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname? (I answer this question last, as I have a much better understanding of my character by then and I can think of a name that fits his personality.)
2.      What is your character’s hair color? Eye color?
3.      What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?
4.      Does your character have a birthmark? Where is it? What about scars? How did he get them?
5.      Who are your character’s friends and family? Who does she surround herself with? Who are the people your character is closest to? Who does he wish he were closest to?
6.      Where was your character born? Where has she lived since then? Where does she call home?
7.      Where does your character go when he’s angry?
8.      What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?
9.      Does she have a secret?
10.  What makes your character laugh out loud?
11.  When has your character been in love? Had a broken heart?  
12.  What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?
13.  Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there. Does he wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all? Is he in socks that are ratty and full of holes? Or is he wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by his grandmother?
15.  When your character thinks of her childhood kitchen, what smell does she associate with it? Sauerkraut? Oatmeal cookies? Paint? Why is that smell so resonant for her?
16.  Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?
17.  It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. If he’s eating breakfast, what exactly does he eat? If she’s stretching out in her backyard to sun, what kind of blanket or towel does she lie on?
18.  What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
19.  Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where is she going? What does she wear? Who will she be with?

 * The quote is from the book "Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Ficton. The Practical Guide From New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School."  Written by the Gotham Writers' Workshop faculty and edited by Alexander Steele.


  1. These questions all put the character in a modern American box. It does not leave much room for the sci fi character. The animal character, the person that has never seen a refrigerator, gone on a date or heard of spring cleaning. It does seem like a place to start but my imagination has no problems creating characters my problem is to focus on the story long enough to write and rewrite it until it is good.

  2. Hi Electric Hospital,
    You make some very good points. I hear you about focusing on the story long enough to get a first draft done and then revising it. Thank you for your comment!