Outlining People

I don’t outline my stories, something I used to never admit to because it felt like I wrote ‘wrong’. Now I know that everyone has their own unique style of getting words on paper. Plus a friend of mine said I wrote ‘organic’ and I love that phrase. In this day of expensive things labelled ‘green’ and ‘organic’ I feel stylish.

I also used to use character dossiers when I first started writing. I would religiously fill out all fifty pages for each character, and then never refer to them again. Recently I started wondering if there was a way to develop characters also organically, since I discovered that a dossier is, for me, a mini outline.

There are a lot of internet resources out there on organic character development. Some still felt like outlining though. For instance, one had you make lists of the significant people in your life, as those are who your characters come from. I love lists, but not with writing.

One thing I read about though was something I have always done. The resource suggested keeping a ‘faces folder’ where you collect photos of faces that fascinate you. I started doing that many years ago as personal writing exercises. I would find a face in a magazine or newspaper that caught my eye, clip it out, and try to describe it. A nose, a chin, etc. Then I would read the description and see if I could match it to the face. That evolved into using the folder to remind me visually of characters. I would lay photos out around my laptop. As I wrote, if I struggled with a scene and how a specific character would react, I could glance at the photo as a physical reminder.

I have learned that in organic character development, many people do this. Wow. I thought I was just weird.

My teenage son is a huge fan of McDonald’s. When I allow him to eat there, I have to avoid staring at one of the employees. She has the most amazing, non-traditionally beautiful face I have ever seen. As I wrote The Memory Keeper, her face became the character of Jess. When I struggled with the character, I’d allow my son a trip to McDonald’s. I could never figure out how to approach a real live person and ask to take their photo.

I would love to know how others develop characters. For me, after all my research, I have decided to return to what works best for me. Simply writing the story and letting the character tell me who he is.

9 thoughts on “Outlining People

  1. I guess I outline my characters organically. If I have someone I’m excited about, I kind of immerse myself in them and get to ‘know’ them and their story that way, building them up over a few days until (I hope) I have a rounded-out character that I’m bursting to write about.

    I also like to use photos – Flickr Commons is a great source, I love LSE’s staff photos – http://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/sets/72157622618001338/with/3983646216/


  2. Thanks for sharing about this Lisa. It helps me know how to read a book too, to see what is included, and what left out, of persons in books. In our reading groups we often talk about characters, and even, how we visualize them, if we see the same thing – which is almost never! If there’s been a movie of the book, they talk about whether certain characters have been miscast, or if it was just right. Imagination is an amazing human experience, that it is SO different for each one of us, but yet there is so often consensus too. That is this ultimate mystery to me, how we “see” from squiggles of black on white! Thanks again for this one!


  3. Except for referring back to what I’ve already written of a story, I write characters the way you describe in your last sentence.

    It was you who made me realize how much people want to ‘see’ our characters as they read. I take more care in trying to establish that now, and it isn’t easy for me. That’s the sort of thing it would do for me to write down before I start, but I haven’t yet.

    A lot of the time, I just ‘feel’ the characters. I’ve recently written whole paragraphs, at one point pages, where the only thing wrong was that the character would never do or say what she/he was doing and saying in a certain situation. It’s as though the workings of their psyches are more accessible to me as I write them.


    • I like your last line because that’s exactly how it feels. As I write, I come to understand the characters.Only once have I had a character appear, fully formed, with no story and it was weird. I kept trying to write a story for her and failing, and finally realized she isn’t ready for her own yet. She will have a secondary part in the story I’m working on now, as we get to know each other a bit more.
      One of the things I forget to do, often, is dress my characters! I read a first draft and realize I never clothed them and they have romped through the whole story naked…


  4. This is utterly fascinating. And suddenly I realize I have no system at all for character. Some of them are loosely based on people I knew/know, some are pure figments, and some are gleaned from movies. I suspect they are all me on some level. Perhaps I will try your faces folder– that sounds extremely inspiring (and fun).


    • I’ve sure had fun with the folder. I wonder if no system is a system…what you describe sounds very ‘organic’, too, and I’m finding that lack of structure, that freedom that comes with organic writing, definitely works for me. It’s great finding out more people write this way because then I don’t feel like I’m ‘doing it wrong’!


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