Using Character to Outline

Last week I talked about my plans for a major revision of my work in progress. In that post I mentioned that my main issues were world building and character arcs. As soon as I recognized that was where my focus needed to be, I began researching ways to develop these areas.

This research led me down a rabbit hole of posts on websites like Pub(lishing) Crawl and Writer’s Block Party. Here I discovered ways to interweave my characters with my world building, and ultimately develop a plot that will hopefully resonate in ways it currently doesn’t.

For those who just want the most useful resources, I’ve compiled a template for Character Arc using information from three different blog posts, and included the links for them.

Character Arc Template

Desires and Nailing Act I

Goal, Motivation and Conflict

Essential Story Beats

For anyone interested in my process over the last week and how I applied the above information, keep reading.

I originally put together this plan of filling out these sheets for my two POV characters and adjusting my current revision plans using the new information on goals and story beats. But I quickly realized, though the process of trying to determine the long and short-term desires for my characters, that they didn’t have any at the onset.

Oh, sure, my characters had goals in the story, I’ve revised it and plotted and outlined enough times by now that they had goals. But I realized when reading How to Nail Act I that they should have long-term and short-term desires that are actionable from the beginning.

Previously, Character A just had a desire to reunite her family. There were too many factors out of her control and she didn’t start the story with any sort of capability or plan on how she’d achieve that goal. Character B was along the same lines. His goal involved earning redemption for something in his past, but he had no timeline or concrete way of achieving that.

Realizing my characters needed actionable and larger scope desires from the onset left me with the realization that the why of the story was missing. Why does it have to be these characters? Why is it them called to action in the inciting incident? Essentially, why does it have to be them?

I didn’t have a reason, I had just written these characters in this world with this plot and that was it. No wonder even as the writer I wasn’t invested in the story. My characters needed to be integral to this story and the only ones capable of telling it. Once that major crisis was worked through, I knew I’d have to start from the beginning and establish those desires and the why.

It meant having to disconnect from the current story, which I had some trouble doing. I’ve read enough writerly advice to know that changing something as big as the character desires and the why would more than likely change the entire course of my story.

When the idea on Character A’s desires and why came to me, I knew that was the case. I loved where the what if took me, but it changed her relationships to the rest of the characters, it meant changing her knowledge and would require establishing some major magical world building that (once again) I’d been lazy about thus far.

I went with it anyway, I let the what if continue and while a large part of the premise of the story is still in my outline, I know I’ll have to rewrite every single scene with this in mind. Because a character’s desires and motives will filter into every action and word, changing how they come onto the page. Same for Character B, who’s goals haven’t so much changed as become much more concrete and actionable.

With all this in mind, I went into my Scrivener file, transferred the entire manuscript into a new folder at the bottom of the binder, and made a completely new, blank outline. Don’t get me wrong, I’m keeping a lot of plot points, but I wanted a blank file, one where I’ll be rewriting everything. I’m started from scratch in some ways, a blank page and a deadline to write a new draft, but in many ways this is still just a revision.

It’s a revision because it will be my 9th draft, and regardless of whether or not I have the previous draft in front of me, there’s no way all that trial and error won’t affect how I write this one. I think my words will flow better, and I think I’ll be able to cut to the heart of the scene easier.

I still have a lot to do. The outline and world building needs to be fleshed out and I know changes will have to be made as more becomes clear about the story and world. But for now, I have a much better idea of where the story needs to go, and how my characters are the only ones capable of getting it there.

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