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Let your characters drive your outline

Let your characters drive your outline

I’m barreling ahead with NaNoWriMo. I’m a panster who wants to be a little bit more of a plotter.

Here’s my attempt.

I’m following along with Derek Murphy who recently wrote NaNo Prep: How to Go From Plotless to Polished for the National Novel Writing Month blog. Here’s a snippet that I’m going to fill out.

DISCLAIMER: I’m under severe time limitation and pressure to get this done in about 10 minutes. My 14-year old son desperately wants me to play Madden on the PS4 before my friend gets to our house in half an hour. That means I have about 10 minutes. Here goes.

This is copied from Derek’s post. I’m going to add my story in italics after each point.

Let your characters drive your outline.

A basic story might look like this:

  1. Character wants something but can’t get it. Something happens that forces them on a new experience or journey. They resist, but are forced by circumstances to move forward. Charlie Holiday wants to be “special” but doesn’t know if he’s willing to do the work to make it happen. Others have “chosen” him to be one who can uncover his own secret powers, but he’s lazy and not sure he’s the right guy for the job. He sees that he can help other people and is torn because he’d rather just live his own life and not have to deal with others, although helping them does make it harder to turn down. It’s like the dog that might not get adopted at the shelter. Or is he just a bad (or lazy) person? Wow, that’s kinda long and kinda boring. Needs work!
  2. The antagonists appear, showing danger and consequences. There is a conflict or battle and the protagonist’s forces lose. More is revealed, until the protagonist finally makes a deliberate choice to fight back or take control. Those who already have the “special powers” are there to recruit Charlie and could force him but are not sure he’s worth their trouble. Why don’t they find someone who’s willing and able? Maybe he doesn’t accept at first? Or maybe he doesn’t make the cut? Would he then want it more? This is an excellent exercise as I actually have to think about what’s happening, what happened, and what will happen. I clearly don’t have that down yet. 
  3. The protagonist makes a mistake; a failure that causes irreparable harm to one of their allies. They feel guilt, fear, loss and almost give up. Maybe this is where he, as I attempted above, doesn’t help someone. Maybe because of his selfishness someone else is hurt and he sees it and feels it. Maybe it takes seeing someone besides himself in pain to realize that he has a purpose beyond himself. See, this helping already. Even I’m understanding better how the story might go. 
  4. The protagonist reaches into themselves, finds a new will to continue, discovers a new power or ability, and overcomes the antagonist’s forces… this time. Through helping the other (or others), he sees that he has a calling greater than himself. Maybe he should accept the special powers so that he can grow beyond himself and help others. 

So, that was fun! No, seriously. That was super helpful.

Now I have to go play Madden on the PS4.


  1. Make your characters fail. How else will they know when they succeed? - […] the help of Derek Murphy. The following is a follow-up from yesterday’s post (Let your characters drive your outline)…

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