I keep up with hundreds of characters each year. I write five mystery series, and that means a lot of people coming and going. You may never need to track that many characters for what you write, but it’s a good idea to know who your characters are and what they’re doing anyway. Here are some tips that can help you do that.
One good way to keep up with characters is to create a sheet or folder for them. This can be on your computer or on paper. You can put down all of their distinguishing traits, both mental and physical. You can write down how they feel about things that happen to them.
Why keep track of characters?
Some of my friends who only write stand-alone stories feel that it’s a waste of time. They aren’t going to repeat their characters. Here’s my argument for that:
- It helps organize your thoughts about your characters. Sometimes when you pin them down, they aren’t who you think they are. Or they look different than you imagined. Characters can be tricky – at least mine are.
- Protect yourself in the future. If you have a dated character sheet, no one can accuse you of ‘borrowing’ characters. Also, no one can claim your characters after you’ve written them and sent them out into the world. You have proof of their birth.
- And, of course, there’s always the chance that this story might be the BIG one – the one you’re going to want to repeat. That would be a bad time to find out you didn’t take the time to figure out who the characters were and write them down.
Included in your character sheet could be:
- Physical traits – how they look, which parent they take after, physical imperfections (dry hair, biting nails) as well as their best points (pretty eyes, nice feet).
- Temperament – do they have calm natures? Are they bullies? Are they good drivers? Do they have a tendency to daydream?
- What happens to this character in the story? How do they respond?
- Where do they live? What do they do for a living?
- Do they like ice cream? Are they allergic to bee stings? Do they have a thing for wearing cotton?
- If these are mystery (science fiction, fantasy) characters, how many times have they been shot or injured?
I like to take photos, or cut and paste pictures of people I see on the Internet and in magazines which remind me of these characters. I can look back at them and see exactly what I was thinking at the time I first imagined them. Using imagery is a good way to keep ‘seeing’ your characters, even if you’ve written ten books about them.
You can make your character sheets as long and detailed as you like. I try to cut back on side characters. I know who they are but maybe not all the details. I have enough that I can come back and use them again if I want to.
There are programs that do this for you too. Microsoft Scrivener is one of them. Also Pathfinder. I don’t particularly like these because I don’t like filling out forms. I’m a pantser when it comes to information. I have some of my stuff on paper and some on the computer, and I like it that way. But you might enjoy an organizer program.
The important thing is to take some time with your characters. Get to know them and keep track of your scorecard on them. You might want to take them out again sometime!