As someone who wrote multiple short stories, I had a huge learning curve when it came to my first novel. Last week, I wrote about the need to make sure you have a key component of your world set up before you write that amazing Fantasy novel. This week, I’m going to share another hard lesson I learned: your outline is really more like a guideline. That lesson: every character has just as much of a say in the plot as you, the author.
The Power of the Characters
“What?!” I hear you ask. “The characters aren’t even real!” If you don’t see your characters as real, you have a whole other set of issues you’re going to run into a writer, but let’s stay on topic for now. They certainly are fictitious, and completely at your mercy on whether you’ll let them play the role in the story that they ought. If you never plan on sharing your story with others, by all means do whatever you want. They are your characters – up until you share them with the world. At that point, you’re still their creator, but your readers will certainly pick up on a writer forcing his will unnaturally against his characters, and their reaction against such writing will be incredibly negative. It destroys any semblance of reality. We as real people are characters too – and we don’t act contrary to our nature except under extreme circumstances or slowly over time through a natural growth progression. You must remember that your reader needs to be able to identify with the characters in order for the story to have any meaning. If you deny your characters something that is essential to existence as we know it – the ability to act at will within the world – you cut off all but the most dull-witted people from enjoying your story. Those with just a small level of intelligence will be able to say, “That just wouldn’t happen like that.” They may not be able to explain why they are perplexed, but the overwhelming majority will notice it. And those with any decent amount of intelligence will instantly know why, be able to articulate it, and rightly condemn you for being a poor creator who doesn’t even care enough about his/her own characters to make them feel real, so why should we as readers?
The Necessity of the Outline
Don’t get me wrong, you need to have an outline. If you run in blind, your story will be disorganized, have gaping holes, and all manner of problems no matter how talented you are as a wordsmith. But you will also find as you write your story that certain things that made complete sense when you wrote the outline simply won’t work.
For example, you reach a key point in the primary conflict arc where you outlined a character to make a huge, impactful decision. But, as you wrote the character up to this point, you realize he/she can’t do that and stay consistent with the characters as it has been portrayed. You would literally be forcing their actions for the sake of your plot, and it will jar your readers. And, if not adequately explained or, worse yet, if it was a random break and the character reverts to their true self later, it can ruin an otherwise great story.
I ran into this exact situation a few times in my novel. It’s one reason (of many) I had to write so many drafts. Sometimes, I changed the plot. Sometimes I had to develop a whole new character to move the plot in the direction it needed to go, but when I did that I actually had to give him/her a full character, not just a convenient appearance I needed.
The Proper View of the Outline
So, why bother to outline if it’s so fluid? Well, no doubt you’ve heard the saying, “Those who fail to plan are planning to fail.” But there is another saying about planning by former President and World War II general Dwight D. Eisenhower that he gave about battle that holds true in writing and is more precise. “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but that planning is indispensable.”
Ike (as he was known) was referring that, in battle, nothing goes according to plan, but because you took the time to plan, you had the knowledge needed to adapt to the present situation. Your plan may get shot all to pieces the moment the battle starts, but the time you spent planning has given you the familiarity and knowledge needed to make decisions on the fly and find a solution that works.
Interestingly enough, this is true when it comes to the outlining of your novel.
You see, unlike the poorly thought out role of magic that made me have to tear everything down and start over, I actually was normally able to keep most of what I had already written when it came to molding my story around my characters. I had planned well, I just needed to adapt to the unforeseen problems that every story runs into as it flows from the mind onto the page.
In conclusion, finish that outline. Make it as detailed as reasonably possible. But draw it in pencil rather than carving it into stone. Your characters are the foundation of your story; the outline is the scaffolding that you should easily be able to tear down and rebuild as necessary as you build your vision.
If you have any feedback, please feel free to comment below or message me on Twitter @Tales_of_Lugon.