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Outline Your Musical PART III

Welcome back!

This is part III in a series of how-to outline a musical. This specific series is based on adapting an existing story to a dramatic structure. View PART I and PART II here.

Let's recap!

  • You've created a "living" document for your outline

  • You've created a beat-by-beat list of all actions that take place in your story

  • You've put it away for a period of time to allow your subconscious to solve any dilemmas

  • You've updated your "living" document for your outline

How are you feeling about your project now? At this point you've put some time and effort into fashioning your story for the stage. Are you still interested in the idea? Or maybe you've discovered it's going to require more work than you want to tackle? Or maybe you've found an angle that excites you and you're ready to start busting out scenes?

Either way - be proud. You've gotten further than most...

For this part of the journey, we're going to focus on your characters.

With existing stories, a lot of the character work has been done, but that doesn't mean you are free to start writing... Translating character to the stage requires you to dig into the character - deeper than the original story, to discover their motivation, their feelings and how they respond to specific incidents.


Typically in most book musicals, there is one main character that we follow throughout the story. Think of Mame in the musical of the same name, or Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly. In My Fair Lady, we follow two characters Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, but we feel mostly for Eliza. For more recent examples, look at Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton and Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen.

As audiences, we invest in these characters and subconsciously (there's "that" again) we want to see them succeed. If they don't succeed, we want a satisfying ending to their story that doesn't make us feel like we wasted three hours of our time.


Ask yourself, regarding your story - who is the most interesting character you like? The one that you're thinking about during the entire story? When the character isn't forefront in the story, do you wonder what they are doing? That's most likely your main character.

Sometimes though, we are more interested in the Antagonist or "Villain" of a story - as a rule, Villains tend to be more interesting - as proven by many Comic villains getting their own movies these days...

To translate a character from story to stage, you have to know what makes each of your characters interesting.


Who is your main character? Does the story have an "easy to spot" character? If so, start with him or her.

Who is she? Name, physical characteristics, age, job.

What does she want? Concretely, she wants something - it might be the ability to speak in upper class society without betraying her lower class upbringing. Or it might be to match herself up with a suitor. If your main character wants "to do good" or to "change the world" or even "make a difference" you have more work on your hands.

What does she need? This is a different beast altogether. What a character wants and what a character needs are separate. This typically reveals itself in the following manner: A character starts out wanting something solely for herself, but along the way, sets out a new goal that provides something better to the planet, society or the species.

For now, let's keep it easy:

Main Character - EVELYN, Female, 60+, runs an art gallery.

What does she want - Wants the gentrification zombies to leave her alone so that she can fulfill her promise to her dying husband that she will keep the gallery running.

What does she need - Needs to learn that you have a promise to society to always do good and be better, and that she has to participate in society.

There. That's a main character - and all you need to start.



I've always developed my other characters to be reflections and contrast to the main character. However, you could take the principals above and apply them to secondary characters too.

Example: In Jurassic Park, each character surrounding Dr. Alan Grant has a different take on the story premise of bringing Dinosaurs into present time. Ian Malcolm looks at it from "something will go wrong" perspective. The Laura Dern Character sees things from a "management" perspective, and so on.

That would be one way to develop your secondary characters - give them characteristics that your main character doesn't have.

Another way to develop them is to reduce them to 2D versions until you've written a draft. Then go back in and give them a backstory.

It's no secret that some characters in stories simply exist to deliver a message, drive one action beat or to hurt the main character forcing them into their story journey. So write them as utility until your draft is done, then see what you might be able to do with them.

For now though, let's just get through the basics for your outline.

Go to your living document and add your characters, try to keep it simple like this:

Evelyn, F, 60+, trying to keep gallery open amid gentrification zombies

Levi, M, 35-40, unhappy in current job but afraid or unaware he has the power to change it

Rita, F, 25-30, failed at painting, struggling to find her artist voice

Now you have "people" - words are magic, write stuff down and instantly your subconscious starts creating...

Let's stop here for now. You need a little time to think about these characters. In our next part, Part IV, we'll be placing our characters into dramatic beats that illustrate the grand journey of our story.

Alan Saunders,

Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.

Check out for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!

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