Profiling the major characters you intend for your work will, more than any of the other elements of your outline, bring you into the world of your narrative. In this step, you introduce yourself to your characters, and they begin to open up to you about themselves. You may have thought you knew them before, but it’s not uncommon to be surprised as you develop your characters from a name on a page to a three-dimensional, living, breathing being. Admittedly, it’s you who does the living and breathing on their behalf, but the symbiotic relationship between a writer and her characters is a mysterious and sometimes eerie one; some writers inhabit their characters, and others are inhabited by their characters.
Here are a few aspects of a major character’s profile which, if relevant to the narrative, you might want to consider describing at the outline stage:
- History – You could decide when and where your character was born, raised, schooled, graduated, married, divorced.
- Vital Statistics – Think about your characters’ height, weight, build, handedness.
- Personality – There are many aspects of personality to allocate to your characters: introversion/extroversion, courage, empathy, motivations, strengths weaknesses, confidence, implacability, nervousness, moodiness, politeness, brooding, sunny or sullen.
- Mode of Speaking – Decide your characters’ accent, habitual phrasing, slang, articulacy, affectations, stutters and speech defects, clarity of speech, muttering or mumbling.
- Personal Presentation – Decide your characters’ mode of dressing, neatness, fastidiousness, sense of fashion, personal hygiene, scruffiness or classic stylishness.
- Physical Appearance – Think about your characters’ face shape, eyes, nose and mouth, hands, hairstyle, physique, upright or stooping, athleticism, grace or clumsiness (some writers work from a photo or sketch for major characters to ensure their descriptions are coherent and consistent).
The point of accumulating this type of detail is to make sure that you embark on the journey of your characters into the plot knowing them better than anyone. You will need to be able to predict what they will do when the unexpected arises. You’ll need to understand their vulnerabilities, their preferences, their prejudices. If you can’t describe them to yourself, how can you possibly describe them coherently and consistently to your readers?
Remember also that describing your character need not be in the telling form, e.g. “Tom had endured a difficult childhood” or “Mary was uncomfortable in the company of older men” (see also the later section Showing and Telling). Your characters’ traits can be revealed in their dialogue, their bravery or hesitancy, their actions, reactions and inactions, their skills, abilities, and intellect. Most writers try to let their characters reveal themselves in what they do and say, rather than a narrator stealing their thunder by blurting out flat descriptive statements to readers.
A tip to consider is to highlight material in the outline’s character profile as you include it in the narrative, so you will know not to duplicate what you’ve already told the reader.