Ink-Stained Scribe

NaNoWriMo Outlining Workshop - Part I : The Groundwork

Character – Motivation- Conflict

This workshop is intended for those who already have a pretty good idea of their story, characters, and at least a vague notion of where they want their story to go. Feel free to be like "It's Magic, I ain't gotta explain shit!" at this point. That's stuff for later. If you've got a rough sketch of a scene here, a plot twist there, this is definitely going to help. Sit tight. But before you sit tight, make a pot of coffee and grab a notebook, a pack of notecards, and a pen. We're going to be doing this old-school.

This section focuses on the most important part of story: characters. It's aimed at organizing your characters on paper--their descriptions, desires, and disagreements--before you start writing your outline. You may find subplots, new twists, and new scenes springing to mind as you work through this section. Take note of them--you'll use that in part II of the workshop.

Note: Wow, y'all! I've had several thousand views on this post, so thank you! If you're enjoying this, or if it's not working for you, or if you have stuff to add, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. :)


Write your characters’ names on separate notecards, or spread out on notebook paper—you’ll be writing quite a bit under each character’s name.

1.      Write a description of each major character (including your antagonist[1] or antagonistic force) that includes:


Descriptor - an adjective or adjectival phrase such as magic-weilding, willful, out-of-work.
Noun that helps you define your character, such as mercenary, werewolf, teenager.

A. headstrong princess
B. stuttering slave
C. itinerant mage
D. charismatic general

*It is also acceptable to write NOUN who DESCRIPTIVE ACTION

Example: A girl who recently lost her job / a boy who survived the killing curse / a girl who hates her fairy-godmother.

2.      Once you have that list, try to add another descriptor you’d like the readers to discover about the character as they go through the book. You may not know this yet, and if not, you’ll probably figure it out while you’re writing. I call these “Shadow Descriptions”
A. compassionate
B. brave
C. lonely
D. manipulative

So, throughout the story the reader will learn that the “headstrong princess” is also compassionate, the “stuttering slave” is also brave, the “itinerant mage” is also lonely, and the “charismatic general is manipulative. These traits don’t have to be surprising, but are how you might describe your characters’ personalities. These are the things you want to show your reader through your characters’ actions.


1.      Primary Desires
Write down what each character wants at the start of the story. Pick the most important motivation—the one thing they’re most concerned about. Try to make this more specific than “to be happy” or “to survive”. If you find yourself being too general, ask yourself questions. What would make them happy? What are they trying to survive, or is there something they are trying to survive for?

A. To be a great queen.
B. To be in control of his own life.
C. To find the master that left him behind
D. To run a combined (and therefore peaceful) Rizellen and Centoren—his way.
Remember to note what their desires are at the BEGINNING of the story. These are usually the motivations we see right out in the open, the very first time we meet that character. You may find that your feelings about these goals change as you write, or even throughout the workshop. That’s fine!

2.      Secondary Desires
No one wants just one thing. In fact, people often want two different things that don’t go together, or that create some kind of internal conflict. Below your characters’ primary desires, write at least one more thing that character wants. I recommend you have two or three secondary desires for each character.

A. To be seen and loved for who she is / to get home / to stop the war
B. To remain under the radar (and therefore safe) / to protect the people he cares about
C. To learn and teach magic by writing his book / to prevent war / NOT to be the only one trying to fix Rizellen’s problems
D. To be respected and revered for ending the war (by either conquering or combining) / to use the kidnapped princess as a means to get (primary desire) / to destabilize Rizellen

If your characters’ own desires conflict with one another, that’s a great source of tension, which gives you plenty of internal conflict.

            Stuttering (but brave) slave boy wants to stay safely under the radar, but can’t because he also wants to protect those he cares about.


Write down next to each primary desire at least two things preventing the character from getting what he wants in the beginning chapters of your story. At least one of these should be related to your antagonist’s goals. If it’s not, you probably need to do some thinking on what makes those characters your protagonists and antagonists, and see if you can nudge them into more direct opposition.

The headstrong and compassionate princess wants to be a great queen. The things getting in her way are:

1. The council wants her cousin to be queen
2. She’s been kidnapped and can’t get home
3. She has no confidence in herself
4. She doesn’t know what her people need

The antagonist’s primary goal is to rule both of their countries, which conflicts with her goal of someday being a great queen. Further, the antagonist plans to use her against her kingdom, which also conflicts with her desire to be a great queen, as does his desire to destabilize her kingdom.

Often, the protagonist and antagonist will have something in common. In this cast, both characters want peace, but not only do they have different visions of a peaceful future, they have different ideas about the methods. These similarities and differences between your pro-and-antagonists will help you.
The main plot of your story should be rooted in this conflict of desires.

Of course, there will be much more to the story than just your main character and antagonist’s conflict, but that conflict should always have a bearing on the story—like Voldemort and Harry Potter’s conflicting desires shaped the overall narrative arc of the series (and each book) without being the most important part of every scene.


Was this helpful? Did you make any discoveries? Having trouble? Let me know in the comments!

[1] If you don’t have an antagonist, go listen to Adryn’s villain workshop and come back when you’ve got a little more idea of your bad guy or antagonistic force. Check it out on Pendragon Variety Podcast. This is VERY IMPORTANT.