Pre-Outlining Character Research
I’m here to talk about What Comes Before You Start Writing. I’m not talking about outlining — I’m talking about the pre-outlining process, when you’re ready to streamline your premise and get to know your characters’ basic needs and wants in order to drive the story forward. This is particularly useful for pantsers and plotsers — if you are the kind of person who doesn’t like to outline, or who only outlines major plot points, doing this pre-writing work can help you write yourself out of any jam.
Today I’ll go over creating your premise, character, and a sequence of steps to help you structure the book around your character and your premise.
Creating Your Story’s Premise
The first thing any story needs is a premise. A short, concise description of your book in a sentence or two that describes the overarching idea — like a logline. Example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s premise is, one girl is chosen and imbued with supernatural strength to fight the forces of darkness (yes, I basically stole the opening from season one, but it works!). Or Harry Potter: A young boy finds out he’s a wizard and enrolls in a school for magic, then learns he might be the only one who can stop He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named from taking over the wizarding world.
These projects hinge on these basic ideas. At the very core of each episode of Buffy or novel of Harry Potter is the idea that this girl must fight evil because it’s her calling as the Chosen One, or that this boy must learn magic not only because he’s a wizard, but so he can stand a chance against the Dark Lord only he has ever faced and lived to tell about it.
Another thing I like to consider in depth at this stage is my story world. Though this might be a no-brainer for fantasy writers, whose books hinge on excellent worldbuilding, rounding out your story world is not only important for fantasy! Ask yourself, what is the main setting? The local high school? The coffee shop where your main character works? The basement living room? Where do your characters congregate? Where do they feel safe? Where do they feel unsafe? What spaces will you create that are designed to challenge your character? Determine all the different spaces your characters will use and the various reasons they will.
The last thing I try to sort out before going into more depth about my character are the possible story challenges that await me with the premise I’ve chosen. If I were writing Buffy, I’d say one of the challenges would be making Buffy relatable. As a super girl with super strength and powers, my job would be to keep her from falling into the trap of the “Strong Female Character” and make her a relatable character who is also strong. This is also important for avoiding clichés, and making sure your premise is uniquely yours. For example, if your book is a YA heist fantasy with a rotating ensemble cast set in a secondary world, how will you prevent this from feeling like a copy of SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo? How will you make it your own?
Crafting a Powerful Main Character For Your Story
So you’ve determined your premise, story execution, story world, and story challenges. You probably already know who your main character is, but if you don’t, now is the time to decide who your best character is for telling the story. If there are multiple characters you want to tell the story through, now is the time to sort that out. The girl who has lived for fifteen years in the kingdom dungeons? Or the prince who can’t get his life together?
Once you’ve determined your best character, you’ll want to outline your character’s basic action. This is the action that drives your main character throughout the entire story. Basic action is also informed by story execution — if your character is in a fantasy, then chances are, your character is on a journey, and his basic action will involve moving toward a specific destination. Or, if the story takes place around a competition, then the basic action will be competing/preparing for competition.
Now, think about what taking that basic means for your character. Characters don’t just act without thought or reason — you have to give them motivation to take that action. And that involves weakness.
Character weakness can and should be an integral part of your actual story structure. It should propel your character’s personal journey, the basic action that character takes, and provide obstacles for him/her along the way. It can be fear, ignorance, laziness, etc. Weakness offers the potential for character change, which is a big part (maybe the biggest) of making a character and her story interesting.
Once you’ve identified the weakness and basic action, it’s important to consider who that character is at the end. What do they look like as a changed person? What does performing the basic action teach them about overcoming their weakness?
The changed person is very satisfying for a reader. How many times have you seen a movie or watched a show and noticed that the character has little to no growth or change? And to be sure, change doesn’t have to translate into positive growth — change can mean someone becomes disillusioned, or cruel, or greedy. Take a look at Walter White in Breaking Bad — everyone’s favorite teacher gets cancer and through genius and desperation becomes someone he always had the potential to be — a virtual Scarface.
Defining the Moral Choice Your Character Must Make
All of this ties into the moral choice your character must make at the end, a choice that they can only make now that they are a changed person. The decision would have been easy to make (or non-existent) before they changed, but now that they have reached the end and learned so much and became a different person, the moral choice will be much harder to make. It’s a confluence of their old life and their new.
To recap a bit, you’ve already determined your character’s weakness, what they look like as a changed person, and the moral choice they must make at the end. Now we must determine just how the character gets to that moral choice.
It begins with a desire. What your character wants, what propels the plot and provides a catalyst for the entire story. Maybe your character wants to save a friend/a lover/a parent from an evil dictator. Maybe your character wants a degree in astronomy from a prestigious university. Maybe your character wants to confess his love for the girl of his dreams.
Note: This is called a desire because it’s not necessarily the same as what your character needs. The desire is the superficial goal. It’s what your character thinks he or she needs more than anything else, what will ultimately make them happy. It’s often the clash between desire and need that makes for interesting internal conflict.
So what is your character’s need? It’s an internal thing, not often known or understood by your character. For example: if your character’s weakness is a fear of doing anything risky due to a loved one’s death, but her desire is to visit a sick friend who lives halfway across the world in a strange country, then your character needs to overcome her fear of doing anything that might be considered a risk to get there.
Laying Out Your Character’s Journey
So to fulfill her desire, your character now needs a plan. Maybe getting across the world is easy, but finding her friend once she’s landed in the foreign country is where things get tricky, and she must hire a guide, or negotiate a method of transportation that could go horribly wrong. Her plan is the catalyst for the basic action — employing the plan is where things will ultimately test your character’s weakness, and force her to confront it.
And plans often go wrong because of the opponents that stand in your character’s way. Determine your character’s opponent by asking: who are the people who are making your character’s life difficult? Who is testing your character’s weakness and emotional limits? How do they make the plan next to impossible to follow through?
Note: I’m intentionally not using the word antagonist here because, while antagonists are always opponents (when they’re human), opponents are not always antagonists. An antagonist could be considered an active opponent — someone who actively opposes your character and sabotages the plan intentionally, whereas some opponents don’t even realize they’re in the way. They just exist. For example: your Main Character wants to date Person A, but Person A is dating Person B. Person B is an opponent. Even if he or she never does more than act as a really great romantic partner to Person A — even if he or she never actively opposes the MC, they are in the way of the MC’s goal, and therefore an opponent. The antagonist in that scenario is actually Person A — because she actively wants the opposite thing to the MC, and rebuffs the MC’s advances because of that opposing desire.
Whew. Still with me? Okay, let’s move on.
Your character is enacting her plan. She’s facing her opponent(s). Now comes the battle: the moment when her desire and her weakness come head to head and she is forced to overcome her weakness or fail at everything she’s overcome to get this far. Yes, this is the climax. But it’s also an internal battle for your character where she’s forced to face these things about her that have been holding her back, emotionally and physically.
This should spark an internal revelation: things are not how they’ve always seemed to your character. Now that she has finally reached her friend on the other side of the world, your character realizes the world is, in fact, beautiful. That she is capable of taking and overcoming risks. Your character gains an understanding of herself and her surroundings due to overcoming her weakness — she has found a new balance to her previously unbalanced life.
While this might feel like a lot to take in and understand, take a deep breath. A lot of this takes time and practice to learn and fully integrate into your writing. But a lot of this is stuff you already know — without realizing it, you employ these strategies in your writing. Now you have a way to explain certain processes of plot, so that you can identify issues and dig yourself out of holes. With all of this in mind, go forth and write!