In the Mind of an Outliner – Characterization

Once upon a time, I tried to be a pantser.

Once.

It was a mess. I just wrote scenes as they came to me and then tried to make it all work. It was a ginormous jumbled mess. I don’t know what I was thinking because I live a life of routines and schedules, but somehow thought I wouldn’t need to incorporate that same preference into my writing?

No, that wasn’t it. I was pantsing because I got caught up in the excitement of word count and percentage progress, and sucked in by the enthusiasm that was my first year of NaNoWriMo. I was really good at writing with literary abandon, but then end result took months and months to get to a somewhat consistent POV, story line, etc.

I’m starting this series of blog posts fully acknowledging that outlining doesn’t work with everyone’s brains, but also suggesting there may be something that shows up through these posts that could help out even the most discovering of pantsers.

My stories always start with a character. The premise of the book usually follows close after, but that initial character is who I focus on until the premise arrives. And when he/she knocks on the door of my brain, I answer with a legal notebook handy and we start a conversation.

This is my discovery process. I imagine what they would look like (enter Pinterest), likes, dislikes, and what their favorite color would be. That seems like a strange thing to consider, but I believe you can tell a lot about a person based on their favorite color (I love red and am quite an introvert – it’s funny how those two things mesh together sometimes).

As I plot out their lives, what made them them, I often have scenes drop by, like little packages for my mind.

I always accept those, and write that scene right then. The perk of allowing that freedom to wander a bit is that it is always nuzzled close to the character I was working on. I may use the scene in the book; it may just be the kind of information that allows me to weave a better back story.

And when I feel like I know who that character is, I start researching.

I need to research the setting, the nuances of place that will allow that character to thrive (or not). I study the intricacies of their interests, hobbies, etc. In preparation for the story I’m working on now, I looked into recipes that use flowers (yummy!), the behavior of all sorts of insects (um…), watched performances of young piano prodigies and emailed a friend about ideas of interior design. To get a wedding scene just right, I studied the protocol of a military wedding and the differences in tradition between the branches.

All of this shows up in the notebooks of character.

Once this has been done, I feel confident taking a walk with these characters. They rarely stay exactly how they were created – there are still times when in the middle of a story, they surprise me in some way. I think when our characters do that, they feel more real. The point is by the time I reach drafting phase, I know the people I’m working with.

Do you outline? What is your character creation process?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher. Her days involve running kids around town, Diet Coke, small amounts of chocolate (more when necessary) and conversations with herself. She writes Women’s Fiction, listens to lots of classical music and is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

3 thoughts on “In the Mind of an Outliner – Characterization

  1. I think my process is always evolving. I start with a vague idea of a character, write some scenes, and then go back to the character document I keep and try to flesh out things about them–not just likes and dislikes, but also what they're afraid of, what motivates them, what their basic life philosophy is, etc. But sometimes I'm still surprised–one of my characters in my current WIP changed dramatically in the second draft.

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  2. That's interesting! I always start with a premise and I can't even imagine a character until I decide what the story is going to be about and then try to understand the type of character who would be in that situation. My all time favorite tool for creating characters is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator. If I can figure out where my character falls on that spectrum I feel like I'm 80% of the way there. And yes, Pinterest! What did writers do before Pinterest? Lol!

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  3. I have a hard time creating (or perhaps learning about) my characters. I'm much more likely to start with a premise. I love the idea of creating a pinterest board for a character with things *they* would like. I may have to try it since I find my characters tend to stay far too amorphous too far into the narrative.

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