Monday, March 3, 2014

Character Charts

There's a lot of debate over what really makes a book what it is. Is it the plot? Setting? Narrative? Do the author's words just come alive and sound like poetry? It's all a possibility, and it's my own humble opinion that every writer--and even reader--has their own idea and preferences about what makes a good book.

In my opinion, it's the characters.

Don't get me wrong: everything I just mentioned is all equally important, and I'll have my own little rants about them. There's just something about characters that I understand so much more than everything else.

From their names down to their quirkiest little personality trait, I love characters. I love knowing what they look like, what they sound like. How do they talk? What's their personality like? Most of all, my favorite thing to do is look at a handful of characters put in the same situation, and figuring out not only how they react, but why they react differently.

I'll be getting into some of that in later posts (if I don't, somebody slap me). Something that I think is probably the most important, though, is for a writer to be able to keep their characters straight. Some things are simple: hair color and eye color, for instance; and heaven knows you should be able to keep their names straight. But when you get down to things like: which leg do they limp on, which arm is their tattoo, what does their scar look like and at what age did they get it? These are the smaller things that you might mention once, and then not again in specific until later in the novel, when you sit at your computer with a completely stymied look on your face, and your roommate asks you what's wrong and they don't understand your problem when you explain it (okay, maybe this is just me).

So the million dollar question: what's the best way to keep your details straight?

There's lots of methods. I've heard of index cards and tried those once, and all you have to do is type "character sheet" into Google to get a million five pagers that many people swear by (and believe me, those things have EVERYTHING). None of those ever worked for me, though, so I designed my own process, and all you need is an excel spreadsheet.

So now you've got a completely blank spreadsheet, and let the fun begin. The first row will be your categories; each column with something different. Typically, having the first and last names, age, gender (it might be obvious to you, but I enjoy having it just because), hair color and style, eye color, other identifying physical traits. These are the basics that I suggest to everyone. After that, things get sketchy and awesome at the same time, because you can tailor it to your own book and genre. If you have a series of shapeshifters, you can have a column that tells you what they can shift into, and another for what they look like. Do they have scars? Add a column. Need to know who they're related to? Add a column. Fears? Column. There's infinite things you can do, here, and it all depends on what you need to know about your characters.

So you have your columns, and now all you have to do is fill them in. Each row is a new character, with different details than the ones before and after. Not every column has to be filled right away; start with what you know. Personally, there's things about certain characters that I don't know until the moment I'm writing it; once I write it, I go to my spreadsheet and fill it in. Sometimes you just have side characters; my advice here is to include them, but you don't have to have everything filled out.

So here's an example using the original version of The Hollow Men: there were thirty-three characters I needed to keep tabs on. About three-quarters of them were side characters, or maybe I want to keep an eye on them for a later date. Here were my categories:

  • First Name
  • Last Name
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Hair
  • Eye
  • Other (physical)
  • Current City
  • Past City
  • Special
  • Family
  • Other
Looks like a lot? It's not. It's just the main details I needed to keep my characters straight. Most of them were fairly universal; "special" included any special roles I want to remember, such as a doctor or a tech specialist. "Current City" refers to where they live, now, and "Past City" helps me remember where they were from. "Other" is details that don't fit anywhere else, but don't actually warrant another, full, column (for example, if somebody has OCD, or a secret, or there's a piece of their history that might be useful).

Like I said, every writer and every novel is different; these categories vary to fit my book at the current moment, for those little details that I want to remember.

Something else you can consider is color-coordinating things, or separating characters out. I tend to put black bars (just fill a row with black) between lists of characters to distinguish them into different groups: antagonists, side characters, protagonists. Some characters have red behind them to distinguish them as dead (but I still want to know things about them).

In the end, mine looked like this:

Yours will look different, once you figure out how you want to arrange things.

Like I said before, everybody's different. I know people who keep their information in notebooks, index cards, or who use those character sheets. The most important thing is to do what feels organized and right to you; it's right next to the importance of making sure a tattoo doesn't jump around your character's body because you think you remember where you put it, but you're not quite sure. This is my own way of keeping my details straight, so they're right at my fingertips every time I need them, and it's easy for me to navigate.

Stay Crazy,


Thoughts or Questions? Let me know what you think!

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