Outlining the plot of a novel is an interesting idea. A Literary Agent has asked me to send her the first 25 pages of my next novel and an outline of the story. Well, what I have found is that it takes about 25 pages to find your voice and the voices of your characters. It takes about 25 pages to know if the idea you started out with is going to work or not.
Sometimes you have an idea at the beginning, but as you write, you realize that the story isn’t compelling enough as it is. It needs a different direction or, at least, a detour or two. Your characters tell you who they are and how they would react. When you force reactions on them that aren’t true to them, they reject your story-line. You realize that if they were real, they wouldn’t react that way and that trying to force them to only weakens your story. That is really the core of it all, making sure it is real.
My characters take time to research, they represent people who lived at a certain time in a certain place. I want to represent those people fairly. As I learn about who my characters are, I learn what their message to the readers needs to be. Through my books I want my readers to come to new understandings about life. I want my readers to be invested in my characters and to ride the highs and lows of life with them. Through my books I want to open up a door to history that hasn’t been looked at in quite this way before. I want to show the common humanity that exists under circumstances that are outside of one’s control.
Characters need to be fleshed out, well-rounded, three-dimensional; not paper cutouts. Once you get to know your characters, then and only then do you know where they are going to go. You will know when you have the outline right, because you will be carried away with the excitement. When its right, it flows. When it isn’t, you need to reexamine it and start over.