Plot outlines are a thing that people do sometimes. What I’ve discovered in November, however, is that character outlines are also an important part of my process. I’d been doing them on autopilot as part of the standard idea percolation process preceding a novel that I didn’t notice how damaging they were until I forced a first draft on a very specific schedule for the sake of the NaNoWriMo creative writing challenge. So if nothing else, that writing has taught me the importance of these outlines.
So, you’re probably wondering how a character outline can even work, and if you have any idea at all, you’re probably expecting some kind of template or form that you fill out. That’s not how I do it (although apparently the Snowflake Method works for some people, and it involves doing that). I do ensemble outlines, and not in a Five Man Band “make all characters fit into this kinda loose formula” kind of way. I’ll explain below the break.
The two main ways I write ensemble outlines is as a spectrum or as a wheel. In the example of a spectrum, the characters, usually a set of five (we’ll get to why later), are on a spectrum from -2 to +2 on whatever issue is going to be the heart of their conflict. In an example of “pragmatic versus idealist,” our -2 pragmatic character is going to be utterly ruthless in pursuit of their goals, while our +2 idealist is going to be naive and unprepared for just how muddy things are in reality. So far, kind of generic, but the +1 idealist and -1 pragmatic provide less extreme examples of these characters. They usually get along well with their more extremist counterparts while tempering the stupidity of being over-committed to one end or the other.
I will generally start a story focusing on one of these two character pairs, whichever one is likely to be more pleasant to spend a story with in general (in this case, the idealist pair). The other three characters will be present, but will not be the focus for the first arc, which will instead focus primarily on the relationship between these two, who generally get along but have significant differences in their level of commitment to their ideals. In the idealist pair example, this will basically be a Batman/Superman team-up story, where we have a big blue boy scout on one end and on the other someone who’s still firmly in the idealist camp but much more willing to get close to the line (I’m assuming a Justice League kind of Batman here, who is darker and more vicious than Superman, but not the kind of person you’d describe as “vicious” in any context other than comparing him to Superman).
Characters generally only get along with people who are within two steps of them on the spectrum. That is, +2 and -2 can’t stand anyone who’s on the other side of the spectrum, and while +1 and -1 can put up with each other in a vacuum, the fact that each of them tends to stick with their more extreme counterpart means they tend to see each other as rivals or even enemies even if they both acknowledge that under better circumstances they could probably be friends. The +0 character’s purpose, then, is to get everyone working as a team, as the only character who everyone agrees is pretty okay. They’re within two steps of both extremes, and are usually someone who can resolve the paradox between them by exemplifying the seemingly opposed virtues of either side simultaneously. In our idealist/pragmatist example, this is someone who can frame idealistic actions in terms of their long term strategic benefits to the pragmatists and justifying pragmatic actions with heroic-sounding speeches to the idealists. Usually the +1 and -1 don’t require a whole lot of persuading in this regard, because they’re moderates who get that there’s benefits and tradeoffs to things and that always and forever adhering to one way of doing things will end poorly, so the strength of the +0 is mainly in their ability to get +2 and -2 to play nice with each other.
After introducing the team and the world with a story focused on +1 and +2, I usually illustrate why team minus has a point sometimes by pairing up -2 and +1, then putting +1 in charge (maybe by adding in +2 to give team plus weight of numbers), but in a situation where team minus is right. The audience is predisposed to think that +1’s going to be right about everything, especially since -2 is kind of a crazy extremist. The specific situation they’re in, however, happens to be one that strongly favors a pragmatic approach, and +1 is moderate enough to recognize that they were wrong when everything blows up in their face. Since the first story revolved around +1 and +2 and has probably done the legwork of making it clear the benefits of team plus’ perspective, after these first two arcs are complete we’ve introduced two different sides of the paradox and established that neither one is unreservedly correct, and we can explore the specific character interactions between them in basically any combination. The only rule is that +0 should not get an arc with +2 and -2 until the climax. +0 can make an early demonstration of their ability to resolve the paradox with +1 and -1, and +2 and -2 can have an arc together without +0 in which they’re just constantly at each other’s throats in order to demonstrate why the paradox needs to be resolved, but once you’ve had +0 in the same arc as +2 and -2 and successfully resolved the paradox between them, your story is over. As such, that needs to be your climax, which is also usually the only time when I bring the entire team together.
The reason why I find the spectrum works best with five characters is because with seven or more it gets hard to differentiate where exactly on the spectrum they’re located, even though that otherwise isn’t too difficult. Once I’ve decided on a paradoxical conflict to base the ensemble around, it’s pretty easy to make characters who hold extreme and moderate views of either end and then a +0 who resolves the paradox by exemplifying both sides of it simultaneously. Figuring out how to meaningfully differentiate +1, +2, and +3 from each other can be a lot harder. Sure, you can add Spider-Man to the idealist side of things, but does he really represent a distinct perspective from Superman’s, or is he just the same thing but with more teenage sarcasm? He’s a different character, sure, but what is he bringing to the table in terms of being a distinct perspective on idealism vs. pragmatism that Batman and Superman aren’t already doing?
Using even numbers gets things lopsided which can result in either the outnumbered side coming across as underdogs or the overrepresented side from overwhelming the outnumbered side in sheer number of sympathetic viewpoints, which in either case can lead to the audience thinking of one side or another as the good guys and that the other side needs to capitulate to them. Once one side of the spectrum are defined by negative traits they need to rid themselves entirely in order to cross over to the other side of the spectrum, they aren’t one half of a paradox. They’re your antagonists.
None of this is a hard and fast rule. I’ve had spectrum ensembles where the +1 and -1 didn’t get along at all because of specific character traits orthogonal to the paradox at the heart of the spectrum, and while I haven’t currently written a story in which more than five characters made up the spectrum, I wouldn’t intentionally avoid doing so. If you can think of something Spider-Man brings to the idealistic side of the table, that’s fine, and you don’t even necessarily need to give Punisher and Ghost Rider over on the pragmatist end a third pragmatist to balance those scales, so long as you can still portray them as being right in certain situations (which is certainly not usually how crossover stories involving these characters go, but I’m relying on very well known characters to make my point because the alternative is telling you to fuck off and read one of my 100,000+ word stories before you’re allowed to come back and understand what the Hell my examples are referencing). You can give the +0 an arc of growing into a leadership role, and as part of that arc you can have the whole team on the same adventure together earlier than the climax, but +0 is unable to keep them together and they end up splitting off into team plus and team minus and it all goes to Hell. The point of these outlines isn’t to be a rigid formula, but to be a starting point.
The wheel is basically the color wheel from Magic: the Gathering. There are five characters who each get along with the two characters adjacent to them on the wheel and don’t get along with the two characters opposed. Lord Shiny gets on with Lord Droplet and Lord Trees, but is enemies with Lord Spooky and Lord Campfire. Lord Droplet is friends with Lord Shiny, but he’s also friends with Lord Spooky and doesn’t like Lord Trees any better than Lord Campfire, and so on. The advantage to the wheel is that it doesn’t position any one character as the great golden savior of the other four the way the +0 character tends to come off as, which makes it good for situations where there’s not supposed to be any clear leader nor is there supposed to be any version of events in which everyone gets along. Rather than being a team split in half that must be unified like the spectrum, the wheel is a team that’s riven by conflict across all members, who must each individually learn to reconcile their differences with one another to form a team. This gives you five automatic character conflicts to resolve: Shiny/Spooky, Shiny/Campfire, Droplet/Trees, Droplet/Campfire, and Spooky/Trees, each of whom have some kind of fundamental disagreement that they must resolve before they can form Voltron.
As with the spectrum, I like to introduce the team and setting with a pair or trio of characters who get along with each other and hold more popular perspectives that will make it easier for the average reader to enjoy an adventure about them before throwing them into an arc about people who don’t get along at all. If we’re using the actual Magic: the Gathering mana philosophies, this is going to be either Trees/Shiny/Droplet or Campfire/Trees/Shiny, since the Spooky perspective is usually going to be immediately repulsive to people and it’s usually a bad foot to lead with. Campfire probably isn’t someone the average reader would want to know in real life, but can be a perfectly entertaining character (and an example of how these rules aren’t inviolate is that if Spooky is having tons of fun being a villain, you might want to lead with one of the trios that includes him). Once you have the concept and setting introduced in your first arc, you can transition to setting up situations in which the five major character conflicts are highlighted and ultimately resolved.
As with the spectrum, I like to keep the characters directly dealing with the arc’s problem down to less than the complete team, preferably two or three, so that the entire team working together can be reserved for the climax. A common point between these two, in fact, is that the ensemble cast do not start as friends. This is kind of unusual for an ensemble story, where typically everyone gets along and serve as a gestalt main character. Indeed, one of my problems with the NaNo was that I took two characters who had resolved serious personal differences and ultimately become friends from one story and then dropped them in another having already become friends. I didn’t want to retread a character arc I’d already done elsewhere, but without that initial conflict they didn’t really have much to do except kick goblin ass together, something which they ended up actually doing apart, because once their differences are resolved they work so well together that it’s hard to put anything in front of them that tests anything about them except their raw physical ability to kill boss monsters, which you really can’t hang a story on.
I feel like I should have a third outline, just to fit the rule of three and all, but I don’t, really. I dunno, maybe use the Five Man Band or something.