Those of you who don't outline - do you prefer to use extensive character background work?

Those of you who do - do you also use extensive character work?

I noticed while working out an outline for the new novel that my character backgrounds are more sketches than full profiles. I know with the last one, I discovered a lot about the characters as the plot unfolded. So I don't mind so much that I don't know the characters that well going into this novel - I have an outline.

That might seem bass ackwards, but I think of it as getting to know a person the way you would IRL - you don't know everything about them from the outset, but with some people, you can kind of see where their lives are going. Sometimes they do what you expect; other times they don't, and the surprise is what makes it interesting.


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No, no character work. I just can't work that way. The characters and story come alive only when I'm actually writing. Still, I should admit that I'm stuck at the moment because my timelines for several characters don't work. The pacing of the story and switching POVs and locale played havoc with that. So I have to stop, work out the timeline post facto, and either rearrange the chapters or make other changes. Outlining would have avoided that.
Amra, when you say "story," do you mean both plot and characters?

I know most writers don't outline and I wondered if the alternative to that was extensive pre-story character work.
I'm doing something different this time. I'm writing in screenplay format, and I'm going to use that as my outline. No character sketches per se, but I'll have most of the action and dialogue down before I actually start the novel. Whatever works, right?
For me, it's all about the characters. I like to know them really well, all about their backgrounds and exactly what brought them to the moment of the story.

I like to discover the plot as I write.
I outline and do brief character sketches, filling in details as the character becomes more whole to me during the construction of the outline. I keep fleshing out the sketches as I go throuhg the first draft, as opportunities and backstories present themselves.
I don't do much background work, but I do like to have some history for my characters since that will often affect the plot. But like you, I think I discover a lot as the plot unfolds. In my current WIP, for example, I have a main character (female) whose best friend is her ex-husband (who left her for another man). I know -- will it work? In order to make it work, her personality has to be spot-on, so that's driving how I form her in the book.

In a recent scene, another character mentioned the ex and how he was an important lawyer and it would be useful to know someone like that ... gee, I didn't know that about Charlie until that moment. Now I'll go back to chapter 2 where I introduced him and make sure I make an allusion to his legal practice.

So I guess it's an evolutionary process for me...

I tend to know more about my characters than I realize I know. In other words, the knowledge comes to the fore as I write the story. I do tend, however, to jot down these "revelations." Experience has shown me that holding them in my head is an effort that drains creative energy and prevents other "stuff" from coming up.

In ON WRITING, Stephen King likens learning about his story and characters to having movers move up stuff from the basement. He says that like most moving men, the boys in the basement bring up what they want when they want, and that they're more concerned with carrying the stuff than what the stuff is. So they'll bring up boxes for the kitchen and put them down in the living room and stuff for the living room they will leave in the bedroom, etc. If you interrupt the boys and tell them to wait while you "unpack" thee box and see where they belong, then their muscles will grow cold, and they tend to get lazy and fade away. (Your imagination grows cold and your momentum suffers.) So he says to just let the boys bring up the boxes in whatever way they wish. When they're done, you can unpack and sort at your leisure.

I've always loved that metaphor and find that it works for me. When enough boxes have been brought up, I stop writing and start organizing, putting scenes and snatches of dialog where they belong, ironing out inconsistencies in the plot, But by and large, I find that writing a lengthy, detailed outline and descriptions of character background beforehand does nothing but stifle creativity.

For me, momentum is key. I just think that every writer should work in a way that lets him or her write as fast as he or she can. I try to get down as much of the story as I know, and then I sit back and look at what I have. It sounds disorganized, but it's basically giving my left brain and right brain their allotted time. When I'm in left brain mode, then my right brain/inner editor is quiet. There's peace in the house (no internal struggle) and the writing is better for it.

Does that answer make any sense?
For a new project, the plot unfolds, during the first fifty pages. Then I do a plot outline.

My characters reveal themselves as they go along. I begin with preconceptions but often change a character as the book progresses. Sometimes, a perceived good person is bad. At other times, an apparent villain becomes just another important character. Occasionally, I'll combine characters.

No matter what my preconceptions, though, the unexpected often happens.

Story characters often become the grist for novels.

Terrific discussion. Thought I'd add my two bits.

I've been writing for thirty years; started in school with short stories and really bad poetry; after school I threw myself into playwriting and had good luck for about ten years; then I moved to screenwriting and had some more good luck during another ten year period. Always wanted to tackle the novel, and I've been at that for about eight years and am just about to have my first two novels published and am nearly finished with the third in the series. Also have a novel for young readers, which has not yet found a home. Everyone's got a back story--that's mine--and I only write it to say that I USED to sit down at the typewriter (then the computer) with tremendous inspiration, usually derived from some kind of character glimmer or rhythm, and I would literally 'have at the typewriter'! Nothing but blood, sweat, tears, and terror, as I was not always sure, even well into a piece that I actually had a story to tell. It was hard, arduous, Herculean effort!

And I'm glad that way of working is behind me.

Now, I have spent as much as a year and more just on the outline. I write step outlines, as you would with a screenplay, all narrative, no dialogue, and as much as possible, the major dramatic action in each chapter and scene, AND AS MANY OF THE BEATS AS POSSIBLE, are all worked out in that form.

I never begin drafting the manuscript anymore until I am positive that I have a story--and that I know what it is--and that I know my characters--and I 'for sure' know how the thing is going to end!

I find it makes the actual drafting of the manuscript pure joy, and relatively quick. That is not to say that the writing isn't hard--it is--writing is hard work--but there is no TERROR! No wondering and worrying as to whether or not the story is going to bottom out half or three quarters of the way through.

Then I revise and revise and revise. I've grown to love the revisions, where, as a young writer, I hated them.

If a story isn't going to work, I'd sooner find that out earlier rather than later.

Too, it helped that I finally discovered the kind of book I wanted to write in terms of length, style, and manner of telling.

All that being said, the drafting process, despite all the pre-drafting work, is a hugely improvisational endeavor wherein I feel free to go wherever the moment of inspiration takes me with the security of a solid story scaffolded in the outline underneath the drafting process.

What a pretentous so-and-so I sound like. I am delighted to have found this site. I love talking about writing! And, as I live in the woods up here in New Hampshire, it's good to make contact with other writers!

Y'all are awesome!
Not at all pretentious, Jeffrey. I think you are quite right. I have not worked like that since I used to do scholarly writing and then the outline was crucial and made the writing easy.
The same should be true of the novel, but I haven't been able to do this of late. I want to let the story tell itself and am afraid I'll miss the sudden insights that happen serendipitously as you write a scene. Outlining is such a dry exercise and better for being unemotional, but it tends to be uninspired.
Jude brings up an interesting idea regarding screenwriting -- something I've been wondering about. I took a screenwriting class, and we had to write out dialogue and character sketches prior to writing the screenplay. Although the sketches always seemed to change somewhat as the characters evolved during the writing process, I had something to go back to if I felt I was writing in the wrong direction.

Another thing the professor promoted was writing the scenes out individually on index cards. Once that was done, you could tack them to a board or move them around to make them fit. I have scenes and dialogue in my head that might not happen for 200 pages, but I want to make sure I have them down before I forget them. I think this process (or a form of this process) can be helpful with multiple (or complex) story lines, and I plan to incorporate this exercise into the writing of my current novel.
I'm with those who don't do any kind of character sketch beforehand. Character is action, and so the idea of coming up with elaborate histories and backgrounds seems beside the point. Characters act their part in the story, and only then do I think--"Someone who does THIS must necessarily have had THAT kind of background." By then it's an interplay between character and action, if you know what I mean.

That said, the real truth of writing is that the rules are never constant, are they? I have attempted character backgrounds as a kind of exercise, but find them too horribly boring to actually complete unless that background is part of the present-tense story. With my last book this happened, and that background storyline became the "big secret" of the novel. So what do I know?


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