Outlining My Characters (Before I Start Writing) Doesn’t Work For Me

I’m finishing up a Reedsy Learning module on how to write characters that readers will love and care about. The idea is that the writer needs to understand her characters’ backgrounds, lives, and formative experiences, their personalities, their desires, their appearance, and their mannerisms before the point where the story begins. The problem, for me, is that my creative process is different. Does it sound odd for me to say I do some of my best creating when I’m asleep?

Here’s what happened with my first novel, Beautiful, and what’s happening again with Out of Sight:

  • I come up with two or three characters, very roughly sketched out, and a situation. We’re talking “very big picture.”
  • I tell the story of what the characters are doing.
  • This is good for a chapter or two, maybe three, then I get stuck.
  • I think about it to the point that the story stays with me when I’m asleep.
  • The next logical step comes to me in a dream or as I drift near sleep.
  • I jump up, write it down, and that gets me further in the novel.
  • When I’m stuck again, I don’t worry about it because I know the next step will come to me. It always does.

An example of this, from Beautiful, is that I had given no thought to Adam’s last name. To that point, the issue had never arisen, so I hadn’t worried about it. One night, in a dream, the protagonist, Cara, grew agitated at Adam and yelled at him using his full name. From then on, he was Adam Samuelson.

To be clear, I do end up filling out a character sheet to keep characters consistent. For instance, Cara is wary of boys and men so that it would be unlike her to, for example, say something funny in class. As the plot and subplots progress, the character sheets grow even more essential.

Also to be clear, I do most of my writing and plotting during the day, while I’m awake, like a normal person. I haven’t yet figured out how to research in my sleep.

I do not write my novels “one chapter after the other” beginning with the first chapter. I use Scrivener, which is great for writers like me who write the story as they think of it, which is not necessarily in chronological order of events. With Beautiful, Chapter One was one of the last things I wrote; I didn’t truly understand Chapter One until I’d completed the first draft of the novel.

This way of writing keeps me out of my comfort zone. Last night, the muse hit me regarding my current WIP, preliminarily titled Out of Sight. I learned, last night, that the main character Marcie (a teenage girl like Cara from Beautiful) is African-American. This makes my life more difficult because I expect my characters to be believable and real. It’s bad enough that the protagonists of both novels are teenage girls. I’m a 59-year-old (as of today!) white male and I have before me the task of writing a believable black teen girl! On the other hand, I’ve never been homeless yet Beautiful is about a homeless girl. Research is a writer’s friend. That’s how writers who aren’t themselves secret agents pen thrillers, and so on.

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