Pieces of My Writing, Writing Tips

How I Outline my Characters

Some writers make character outlines before they start their novel, and others make them between the first draft and the editing process. But most writers will agree that outlines are needed to flesh out characters and keep the small details consistent. How else are we supposed to remember that John loves chocolate and Peter can’t stand the stuff?

But characters are a lot more than just their likes and dislikes– just like real people.

There are lots of ways to outline characters, and this is just my method. I’ve tweaked it and added various points over the past year, and now I’m pretty happy with how well it covers my characters. The base of the outline, I got from a writer’s meeting (unfortunately, I can’t remember who was speaking…), and then I built on it.

Since I write fantasy, I veered away from the typical character questionnaire that includes questions such as “What is your character’s favorite TV show?” I tried to analyze my characters at a deeper level and then address the superficial ramifications of their inner thoughts later. But this outline should work for any genre and not just fantasy.

I hope that, by showing you guys how I outline my characters, you start thinking and get inspired to delve deeper into your own characters’ thoughts!

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The Form 

(Character’s Full Name Goes Here)

Race: (If you are writing fantasy or sci-fi, “elf” or “alien” can go here, but make sure you are as specific as possible—what type of elf? If you aren’t writing fantasy, then you can probably skip it or put in the character’s heritage such as Irish, Mexican, Pakistani, etc.)

Birth: (Both the location and the exact date)

Place they were raised: (If it is multiple places, make sure you put the dates were they lived at each one)

Parentage: (Who are their parents? If relevant put a short description for each one)

Family: (Any siblings or close relatives who live with them, even if they don’t come into the story?)

Age at beginning of the novel: (Put their age here.)

Age at beginning of book 2: (If applicable, put their age at the beginning of the second book here, and keep going with these age questions until your last novel which you plan for the series to have.)

Personality Type: (I like to take an online personality test– typically the Myers Briggs– on behalf of my character. Not only does it force me to think through some really detailed questions about the character, but it also gives me a base to go from and build on. Here is the test which I use for my characters: http://www.16personalities.com/)

Description: (What does the character physically look like? And try to go beyond hair and eye color. How tall are they? What body type? What do they typically wear? How do they walk?)

Pre-book History: (What happened before the book started? This one can end up very long, but that is okay.)

Trauma: (You may not have this topic if you are writing a more lighthearted book, but I am a bit cruel to my characters…. so I have to have this. Either you can do some research on trauma, or you can think of it as “What haunts your character and is destroying them from the inside?”)

Goals: (This is a very important topic. I cannot stress enough how important this is! Every character has goals– even the bad guy and the minor characters.)

  • External: (What are they outwardly working for? Are they on a quest? Do they want to take over a nation? Or perhaps, something smaller like making a new scientific discovery or finishing their log cabin before winter.)
  • Internal: (What causes the external goal? Deep inside, what do they want? Perhaps it is friendship, to protect their family, to be honored, or something else.)

Motivation: (Why are they motivated to achieve their goal? Is it someone else or something inside the character which motivates them?)

What would break them?

(Muhahaha! This is where you have to put on your evil mastermind cloak and think about how to emotionally destroy your characters. Now, you may or may not have this happen in your novel, but it is a good idea to know nevertheless. What would completely “break” your character?)

Conflict:

  • (Now I don’t like to think about the big, physical conflicts here– I have a plot outline for that!)
  • (Instead, I like to put emotional or spiritual conflicts– minor and major)
  • (Does you character struggle with self-worth or pride?)
  • (Are they being bullied– or are they the bully? etc.)

Quirks:

  • (Here are where all the little things from most questionnaires come in. A quirk is any meaningful specialty which makes the character unique.)
  • (Perhaps your character has a physical habit like shove up their glass or twirling their fingers in their hair. Put it here)
  • (What do they love? Include both big and small things)
  • (What do they hate? Again include minor annoyances and bigger things)
  • (Or if they have a physical or emotional disability– it would go here. Or really anything which would keep them from achieving their goals)
  • (I have to admit now– I’m not very good at figuring out quirks, so if you want a more detailed explanation, you should look it up elsewhere. Sorry! 😉 )

Speech: (How does the character talk? Quickly or slowly? Long or short sentences? What type of diction or vocabulary do they use? How do they structure their sentences? Do they have an accent? Also you may want to remember that guys and girls talk different or do a bit of research on that.)

That should be about it! I also include a random picture from the internet that looks like my character, but I’m sure most of you do that, too.

Since I did a character interview with Baehur last week, I’m going to use his profile as my example (because you already have a small bit of experience with him.)

Let me know if you have any questions, and I would love to hear how you outline your characters! And if you have any tips on writing quirks– well, I could definitely use some help 😉

Example Character: Baehur

Race: Shama’aem elf (that would be the air race)

Birth: A small farm in Green Vale, Evcadeh on the 23rd of Haedesh

Place they were raised: A small farm in Green Vale, Evcadeh

Parentage: Father: Ales (a believer in the Shama’aem King) and a mother: Oris (also a follower of the Shama’aem King)

Family: He was the oldest with three younger siblings (Lamah- 10 year old boy, Hali- 6 year old girl, and Paran- 2 year old boy).

Age at beginning of CoC: 15

Age at beginning of DoF: 16

Age at beginning of SoS: (Uh, I actually need to figure this out still– oops!)

Age at beginning of HoM: 18

(So I have to be honest; I deleted a question here for spoiler reasons, but it is only relevant to fantasy, and I don’t think will effect most people’s characters.)

Personality Type: ESFJ (Extroverted Sensing Feeling Judging) = https://www.personalitypage.com/ESFJ.html (A link to a description of the personality)

Description: Baehur has lightly tanned skin, and is the average size and build for his age. He has curly brown hair which sometimes gets into his light blue eyes. He has an intelligent, freckled face though not a confident air.

Pre-book History: Baehur grew up on a farm in Green Vale, Evcadeh. His father, Ales, was a believer in the King and raised Baehur to serve the King even in their small village. One day, only a month before they got Mar, the King with His knights showed up at his village, and offered Baehur to join them. Baehur accepted and is now one of the Seven Knights of Evcadeh; he learned that he replaced a knight by the name of Jaern who was killed in battle a year earlier.

Trauma: While Baehur (a bit here is taken out for spoiler reasons), he suffers no real lasting trauma.

Goals:

  • Internal: Baehur wished to live up to the expectations for himself, and he wishes to serve the King the best possible that he can, even though he is still unsure of his role. He strives to be a gentleman like Gaevr’el.
  • External: Baehur wants to get to the Golden Fort and train, then defeat the Livyahak army and kill Nakavar. He also wants to protect his family and friends.

Motivation: Baehur is motivated by his love for the King and Gaevr’el’s confidence in him, but he is also motivated by his family. His family believes in him which is why they let Karlik take him. His fear is that he will let everyone down, and so he strives to be the best knight that he can. As Baehur gets to know Gaevri’el, Baehur realized that he needs to become the knight that Gaevr’el is.

What would break them?

Finding out that had failed his family, friends, or the King, and that he survived helpless against the power that killed them. That he could not save those closest to him or that he failed the prophecy.

*Especially, if he found out his family died because of him, and he could have stopped it but was busy being a knight instead.

(Please note that I do not actually plan on doing this– don’t worry 😉 )

Conflict:

  • (CoC + DoF) Baehur struggles with Raewas ’s seemingly unexplained hate for him
  • (All books) Baehur struggles with self-esteem—feeling inadequate and not good enough
  • (This one was deleted because it has spoilers in it!)
  • (DoF) Baehur struggles to take the lead, even when he is supposed to be the leader
  • (Again, more spoilers were here)

Quirks:

  • Because of his hair getting in his eyes, when Baehur is nervous, he sticks his fingers in his eyes and pushes back invisible hair, letting his fingers rest on his temples
  • Baehur blurts out his thoughts very often and speaks exactly what is on his mind
  • He is not confident in his own abilities
  • Not a very good sword fighter (until he is trained), and he would never be able to harm those who he loves
  • He is very comfortable around nature, farming equipment, and animals.
  • Once Baehur is trained, he becomes an excellent fighter
  • Quick learner

Speech: Baehur has a habit of blurting out his thoughts and suddenly entering a conversation. He is always brutally honest in his words, and uses small words and shorter sentences. He has a slight accent, constantly abbreviating words and using the word “ya”. Generally, he has uneducated speech. However, (spoilers– this was deleted.)

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23 thoughts on “How I Outline my Characters”

  1. I took the Myers/Briggs personality test you listed, and it had an extra factor that I didn’t know about. I am 100% assertive.

    I have a few suggestions for your character outline. First, cross reference them. For example, if their parents have their own character outline, reference it in addition to your brief description of them. If you put the character outlines in a Word document, it has a cross reference tool (I’m not sure how to work it, but maybe I’ll figure it out some day). Second, list their age at the end of each book (and maybe a timeline, but that would go better in the story notebook, where you can have an outline of everyone’s ages relative to each other’s, the major events in the book, and the dates of the book). This is especially important if you have any sort of time gap between the end of one book and the beginning of the next (the time gap can be positive or negative). Third, list any exceptions to their personality type (this could go in the personality type section or the quirks section, but I would recommend both—there’s nothing wrong with having something in there twice, especially if it pertains to two different things). Fourth, in the description of Baehur that you have, you just say that he has the average height and build for his age, but that can change from location to location, and you are dealing with an entirely different species. Describe the build and height. I’m guessing that he is supposed to be fairly tall and lanky, but with a good amount of muscle on him, too, but that may be a different farm boy stereotype than most people have.

    Also, you have your first paragraph twice.

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    1. Thanks, Zane. I don’t think I have actually taken this Myer/Briggs test for myself, though I do use it for my characters, so I don’t know what I am in regards to the “assertive” factor.
      I actually do cross reference my outlines (but not through the tool; I don’t know how to use that), but I took them out for the blog post. As for their ages, I made and printed out several calendars for my fantasy world with my characters’ birthdays, holidays, and such, and then I write out what events happen when. This way I know exactly how many days have past, the season, and exactly how old my characters are at all times. (I also have a timeline with when everyone was born 😉 ) It is really helpful.
      You’re right, though. I should list exceptions to the personality type and mark them as exceptions. I think I might already have a few exceptions in most of my character’s quirks, but I might make them bold, so I ensure that I remember them. And I definitely need to describe *all* of my characters better; I struggled with physical descriptions in general.
      Thank you

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  2. If I do character interviews/sheets/whatever before I write, I feel like I’m forcing the characters to be who they’re not. I prefer to write first and let them introduce themselves to me, before I fill out the outlines. And besides, anything could change during the course of the story. However I love the outline you gave here. I feel that it will profit greatly in my projects to come.

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    1. The third book is Son of the Seas (and if follows Raewas and is in his POV, in case you were wondering,) and the fourth book is Heir of the Moon which follows Baehur and is in his POV. Of course, all of my titles are tentative, and if I get an agent or publisher, there is a good chance that they will change them.

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      1. Yeah, it might be a good idea to change a couple of them. While all of them sound good on their own, together it is fairly conspicuous that they are all “some word for progeny of the something.” 🙂

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  3. I’ve pretty much done this. Complete cast listing (minus non-relevant characters like waiters, cashiers etc.) with birthdays, general description, age in novel, relation (friend of A or B or family member), Character C’s love life/living arrangement as it affects A, Likes/Dislikes pages for A & B, Biographies for A & B including cars they drive, where they live/rent cost, how far from each other, how far from work, their hang ups & previous history/backstory. Also A lives in a building with staff she knows their names and a few facts about them so they have their own page of description/age/job duty (maintenance/doorman/security) and their work schedule. I drew out apartment blueprints (crude) and since it is set in NYC (I live elsewhere) I have research on that.Generic photos of appearances to build descriptions from and more.

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    1. Hum. Writing best friends. I suppose that my best suggestion would be to write a couple of short stories about when they first meet and how they first started connecting. At one point, every best friend was once a stranger, and each best friend is also their own individual. So maybe think about them separately, too. That is about the best advice that I can offer. Does that help?

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  4. Hey. Great post! I have a couple of questions not directly related to this. How did you come up with a race and culture for your novel? I am writing a short story and though it’s not a fantasy (it’s actually historical), i don’t want it to have correlations with any existing culture or country on earth, mostly because i don’t want it to be dominated by much historical context and because i wan’t freedom in representation of it’s culture that is essentially very different from mine (it’s not set in modern times). Currently i’m teetering between very vaguely Asian, though my characters all seem to coincidentally have Jewish names (i’m pretty confused). I think that creating my own culture is the only solution, so do you have any tips on doing that?

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    1. For my novel, I came up with the races when I was eight years old. I was out camping, and I decided that I wanted to have races that resembled fire, the sea, the forest, and the sky (and I wanted them to be elves because elves are cool be definition.) So I thought about how God made humans out of dirt, and perhaps in my story, my God character could make elves out of fire, water, the forest, and the air. Then I just try to match skin and eye colors to the elements. After that, I knew that I wanted to explore different forms of government, so I allot the races a theocracy, an oligarchy, a monarchy, and a warrior tribal set up. I actually wrote a post about different types of governments a long time ago: Types of Government For my world, I had also previously decided on using a primarily Medieval European setting with some ancient Hebrew, Spartan, and a more modern form of mercantilism. All my names are based off of Biblical Hebrew.
      I’ll be honest: I don’t know how you are going to write a historical fiction without historical context. You might want to consider changing genres.
      When I first wrote my blog, I actually wrote a bunch of posts on worldbuilding, and I think they might be helpful:
      Creating Fantasy Races (Guest Post)
      Having a Cultural Focus
      Using a Base Culture

      Let me know if you have any other questions! Good luck with your novel.

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      1. Hey. Thanks for the advice. I found it really helpful, and it was interesting to hear about the ideas behind the world in your novel. I realized i wasn’t clear on the historical context thing: i do want their to be context of course, just not of any currently existing nations on earth because it will be hard to adjust my intentions to any recorded history of existing cultures. I will do more research on the genre just in case i have something different in mind though.

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  5. This is fantastic, thank you so much! Using Myers-Briggs for characters is brilliant! Although one character of mine is apparently an illusive 17th type as he fits in no where… 🙂
    I’m also a Christian and trying to write fiction with that at my core is interesting to say the least. It’s nice to know that there are others out there making it work! 🙂
    Thanks again, and best of luck with your writing!!

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  6. Here is the (unfinished, but I am going to finish it soon!) version for my Character, from my book ShadowFall, hope you like it! if something doesn’t make sense, or if anyone has anything they want to say about it, anything that needs changing, it is welcome! other half, coming soon!

    Character Creation Lab
    ShadowFall

    Gaiwen Kyro Eventail
    Race: Elken (Forbidden Warrior* Opposing elemental Elken*) Elken people commonly live for 5,000 years, the oldest recorded Elken was 7,093.
    Birth: Moon Flower farm. the city of Crith. Erlen 16th Year of the Sun.
    Place they were raised: 4 Years with his Mother in his birth home in Crith. 11 years with his uncle in the Blacksmith shop the city of Carthic.
    Parentage: Mother: Melina Rivers Cathaway.
    “Daughter of the sun” or “Sun Blessed” Melina was taken from her home Land at the age of 17 by Huirin’s soldiers. Huirin was trying to create the ultimate weapon, to destroy Sun Blessed Elken people. Used for a “Forbidden Element” experiment or “Elo Nya” surviving the experiments for 98 years she was thought to be dead, but later discovered to be alive and stable, but this experimentation had a horrible side effect. The Opposing elements when combined produced a terrible disease, in which case the Elken would be internally torn apart over a period of time, the name of this disease is called the Kirgela (K-err j-e-la) Sickness. She was used as a warrior for Huirin in the war, but fell too ill with the sickness to fight. Later she was healed by her Husband Eldin.
    Father: Eldin Shera Eventail The discoverer of the legendary Two swords, he was blessed with the amazing ability to be a “Forbidden Warrior” in which case he was successfully combined of shadow and Sun, without the side effects. Eldin won the hundred years’ war for Crith and because of the power of the forbidden swords, was able to heal his later Wife Melina Cathaway of the Kirgela Sickness, but died on the field of battle not long afterwards.
    Family: Mother, (Melina Rivers Cathaway) Father, (Eldin Shera Eventail) Uncle, (Jaco Arlen Eventail) Brother (Spoilers!) (Beothain Lith Eventail)
    Age at beginning of the novel: 15 Fiehirs (prologue 4 Fiehirs)
    Age at beginning of book 2: 16/17?
    Personality Type: INFP
    Description: Hair color: Black. Eye Color: Golden. Height: 4”7 Body Type: Medium. Common Attire: Brown/gold leather poncho, Common green Youth tunic, Simple leather boots. Preferred Attire: Black cloak and tunic belonging to his father, belt and boots also belonging got his father. Walk: (When in balance) Small strides, nervous hand gestures, avoid all contact with other humans, shy, slow careful walk. (When the scales are tipped) Long powerful strides, speaking confidently, edgy, moody-ish.

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  7. Gabrielle! I just found your website; what a fantastic resource you have shared with us. Best wishes for your future and career! Good novels are hard to find these days. I’m confident you will do great and I look forward to reading your novels 😀

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