character outline

Character Outline: The Protagonist

So, here’s the thing. If you’ve been hanging out and reading my blog posts for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been writing, editing, rewriting, and rewriting some more a YA contemporary fantasy for the last few years (it was even a part of my Masters thesis!). Well, dear readers, I am both relieved and weirded out to share that I have written “The End” on that manuscript and it is now floating out there in the world, hoping to find a home.

If you’ve ever been here before, you’ll understand how I’m feeling right about now. That story and those characters have been in my head, a part of me, for, like, five years. Now, as I march into 2020, that story and those characters are no longer at the forefront of my keyboard and writing ventures. I’ve done all I can do for them, and now it’s time to see if they can fly.

As any writer will tell you, writers write.

It’s what we do. Whether it’s for publication or for keeping my sanity intact, writing is what I do. Just because I’ve written “The End” on this story doesn’t mean I’ve written “The End” on every story I’ve got bubbling up inside my head. It’s time, friends, to write a new story, with new characters and new explorations of what humanity can do better.

Because I’m coming at this brand new premise after five plus years of working on LW, I’m feeling extra super weird about where this story will go. Who is at the helm of this ship? I don’t know yet, but I can’t wait to find out.

Drafting is one of the most magical parts of writing for me; it’s the time that I can let absolutely all of my doubts, fears, and inhibitions go, and just write. However, as I’ve learned throughout the course of my career and my personal writing journey, there are some tips and tricks that make writing less of an insane plummet into the abyss, and more of a clear path towards what I hope will be a story I’ll love when it’s finished.

All of this is to say, as I navigate the waters of drafting a new project, I thought I’d share some of the resources I’ve created for myself to get my ideas from my brain to the page.

Thanks for hangin’, friends. I’m excited to help this new story unfold.


Character Outline

Everyone knows that without good characters, a story falls flat. You can have the most compelling plot in the world, but if readers don’t care about the characters in the middle of that plot, the plot is rendered useless. Characters are the people through which a story is told; they’re the ones living the plot readers are supposed to be invested in.

If characters are so important (particularly the one that we experience the story through–the protagonist), they need to be well-rounded, three-dimensional people. They need to feel real.

A character outline is an excellent tool to use when learning about your protagonist. In order for a character to feel three-dimensional, the author must know enough about them to write them authentically. Not everything from a character outline will make it into the book, and that’s okay: this is to give you, the writer, a solid grasp on who they are, how they’d behave, and why they’re on the journey of the novel.

It’s important to recognize that no character outline will explore every facet of human nature; that would be impossible. My character outline targets that which I think is most important to explore in a character, and my outline is always evolving. Is there something else that you think is important to explore for a protagonist? Please share in the comments!

(There is a fillable version of all of this at the bottom of the post, so keep reading!)

The First Dimension

To start, we need to know who our protagonist is. There’s a lot to dive into, so let’s start with the basics:

  • Full Legal Name
  • Preferred Name
  • Birthdate (and age)
  • Gender
  • Location
  • Species
  • Nationality
  • Ancestry/Heritage
  • Skills
  • Education
  • Current Employment
  • Past Employment
  • Employment / Education Ambitions

The Second Dimension

By answering the above questions, we learn the bare bones of who our protagonist is; the basic structure of who, what, when, and where. Now that we’ve got a one-dimensional sketch of our protag, let’s make them two-dimensional. What do they look like? What are their defining characteristics?

Appearance

  • Eye Colour
  • Hair Colour
  • Build
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Ethnicity
  • Birthmarks / Tattoos / Piercings
  • Style of Dress

Favourites

  • Book(s)
  • Movie(s)
  • Music
  • Hobbies
  • Food
  • Place to Travel
  • Season
  • Holiday(s)
  • Person / People
  • Sound
  • Guilty Pleasure(s)

Health

What does your character have to live with every day? Small or large, a character’s health can weigh heavily on who they are, so it’s essential to know if there’s anything that would be at the forefront of their everyday life. Here are a few examples of what you might consider when determining your protag’s health:

  • Allergies
  • Diseases / Chronic Illnesses
  • Fractures / Breaks (past and present)

Family Tree

We’ve made some great progress, but we’re still in the two-dimensional space. Who is your main character, really? Where do they come from? What is their family life like? Below is a (very basic) idea of what a family tree might look like for a protagonist.

character outline

Along with the family tree, it’s helpful to explore a protag’s family life. Was their childhood pleasant, haunting? What is their relationship with their parents? Do they have siblings, and if so, what’s the relationship there? There’s this saying, “There’s nothing more screwed up than family.” So, let’s get to the nitty gritty.

Friends

Who is in the protag’s close circle? Who else does the protag spend time with? How do all of these people relate to each other? Who’s the best friend? Similarly to how we might create a family tree, we can create a friend tree:

Romance

Past and present. Relationships play a significant role in shaping someone into who they are. Who’s impacted your protag? If they have past relationships, why did they end? What did your protag learn from each of these past relationships? If they’re currently in a relationship, what is that relationship bringing to the protag’s life?

The Third Dimension

What makes your protagonist unique, special? What is it about them, specifically, that readers will grow to love?

Psychology / Personality

This is the stuff, deep down, that makes us who we are. These aren’t always overt things, and sometimes a character might not even know these things about themselves, but these psychological characteristics weigh heavily on behaviour and outlook. Some things you might consider:

  • Introvert / Extrovert
  • Optimist / Pessimist
  • Romantic / Cynic
  • Darkest Secret
  • Biggest Insecurity
  • Nervous Tics
  • How They Respond to Love, Change, Anger, Power, Sorrow, etc.
  • Moral Compass
  • Propensity for Depression / Anxiety
  • Sense of Humour
  • Opinion of Self
  • Why Life is Worth Living

Some other fun things:

  • Hogwarts House
  • Pet Peeve(s)
  • Prized Possession(s)

The Deep Stuff

This is the stuff that tends to make us uncomfortable when it comes up in everyday conversation; the stuff that feels so intimately personal, we only share it with those closest to us. What is your protagonist’s…

  • Religion / Faith
  • Fear(s)
  • Greatest Hope
  • Vulnerability
  • Regret(s)
  • Trauma(s)
  • Personal Strength(s)
  • Personal Weakness(es)
  • Five-Year Projection

The Protagonist’s Journey

Perhaps the most important part of a protagonist character outline, we need to know why they’re the one to tell this story; why they’re the protagonist. Answer this question:

  1. Would it be possible for another character to tell this story?
    • If yes, explore how this would be possible, and how you’ve selected one protagonist over the other.
    • If no, explain why. Why must this protagonist tell this story?

There should always be a specific reason behind your choice of protagonist. How do you choose who should tell the story? Sometimes it isn’t obvious whose story this is until part of it is written, but if we go into the first draft with a solid understanding of why this protagonist must be the protagonist, that’s less likely to happen.

In my next post in this drafting series, I’ll be talking about planning the main plot of a novel; the structure that a solid, strong plot follows. Most of you have probably heard of the three-act structure, which will be explored in detail in the plot drafting phase. In this section, we must do something similar for our main character. What is their journey? How do they evolve as the story moves along? Let’s take a look.

Act I – Beginning

What happens that sets the main character on the journey of the novel? What is the catalyst for their journey? More than anything, what does the main character want to achieve? These are the kinds of questions to ask when establishing the protagonist’s Act I.

What happens to the main character, specifically, that sets them on their journey in this novel?

Act II – Middle

Your main character has desires, dreams. How boring would it be if they achieved these things with no obstacles?

Act II is the confrontation or conflict that stands between the main character and their peace. What happens to complicate the main character’s happiness, ambition, love? What happens in the middle of the novel that forces the protagonist to adapt, change, grow?

Act III – End

Do we see growth? Ideally by Act III, the main character has learned something; made some kind of change for the better (or worse). How has the protagonist grown, and how can we see that growth?

Downloadable Resources

Printable Main Character Outline >>

PDF-Fillable Main Character Outline >> (Can be imported into Scrivener!)


There are so many factors that make a person who they are (many more factors than are explored here). What else might you consider when building your protagonist?

Header image by Plush Design Studio.

Bree Crowder

Bree Crowder is a writer of dark and strange tales, and a freelance editor. She holds a B.A. in English, a graduate certificate in Creative Writing, and an M.A. in Creative & Critical Writing. Writing, reading, photography, and travel are a few of her favourite things.

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