Nov 10, 2015

Outline Characters that Sizzle

by Marsha Ward

When I first started writing fiction, one of my favorite authors to read was Robert Newton Peck, who writes both for young people and adults. His characters are always so vivid, so alive, so sizzling! Some are the unforgettable Soup, in the book series with that character in the titles, and the father in a Day No Pigs Would Die.

Peck has also written several books on the writing process. If you can find Fiction is Folks, and Secrets of Successful Fiction, I highly recommend them. They are out of print, but still available from third-party sellers on Amazon.

Peck suggests that before you sit down to begin your short story or to write Chapter One of your novel, you first do homework on your characters, getting to know them inside and out.

His sage advice helped me develop characters that readers care about, so I'm passing it along. Here are Robert Newton Peck's suggestions for outlining a character.

Start with Character A, and answer these questions about him or her on a blank sheet of paper:
  1. What's his or her name?
  2. Where was he born and raised?
  3. What is her religion and ethnicity?
  4. Briefly describe him: fat, thin, tall, short, muscular, flabby, gray, bald?
  5. What does she believe in?
  6. Where has he failed or triumphed?
  7. Is she married, single, divorced, or shy?
  8. Most important of all, what kind of work does he do? And then, is he happy or discontented with it?
  9. What are her hobbies? Sports? TV?
  10. Is he neat or is he a slob? To establish this on paper, describe his desk, his closet, a drawer of his desk and the trunk of his car.
  11. Can your mind picture him making something? Using a simple tool, perhaps, to shape the hull of a model clipper ship?
  12. How do his hands behave? Relate them to tangible things that surround him.
  13. Is she musical? Is there one special instrument that she plays well or badly? Does she play it alone, for herself, or can she jam it up for an audience of friends or strangers?
  14. What was his school and schooling like? Who was the teacher he respected, and why?
  15. What are the events, items, pets, pals that she remembers for years?
  16. Other than memories, what are the tangible trinkets he saves and treasures from his past?
  17. Is she witty? If so, you cannot tell your reader that she is. Instead, you must let your dialogue show a reader exactly the witty remarks she makes.
  18. How does he drive his car, tie his tie, gargle? Does he pick his nose, cough often, snore?
  19. Read the editorial page of your newspaper and choose which opinions she agrees with or disputes. Does she argue bitterly, silently, or to anyone who has to listen?
  20. What is his goal? Whom does he dream about, yearn for, hate?
Repeat the exercise for each major character. Even though you won't need to know as much detail for minor characters, make sure you know them, too!

How do you get to know your characters?


  1. I love Peck's Fiction is Folks and highly recommend it. I keep my copy right up front on my triple-booked, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall book shelf.

  2. Thanks, Terry. I've found it to be one of the most useful writing books for me.

  3. Great post, Marsha. Very helpful.

    1. Thanks, Connie. Using this outline for characters has really helped me.

  4. Wow. Thanks Marsha for sharing this. I guess I'm headed over to Amazon to look for those books. hugs!

    1. I hope you can find them and that they help, Kari.

  5. Excellent resource here Marsha. Thanks.


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