Get Organized: How Do I Track Characters? - Article

Nothing is more annoying than a character that has red hair in one chapter and brown hair twenty chapters later. It’s important to keep track of characters, so logical problems don’t bog down your storytelling. Characters need to be multidimensional, too. Static characters can ruin an otherwise powerful story. Organization is the key.

No “right” way exists to keep track of characters. Most writers keep a master list and then a packet of detailed information about each character. You can go a low-tech route or high-tech route. Some use a notebook with tabs and index cards. Others use file folders. Many employ color-coding to sort through materials. Others use spreadsheets, Power Point slides, and Word documents to track character information. Still others use project management software like OneNote or specialty software like Character Pro. All are viable methods. The only important piece of this equation is that accurate records are kept. The following tips should help you choose what kind of information to gather. 

Tip #1 Master list – Keep a master list of characters. List names, ages, a short description, the characters’ roles in the story, and the chapters they appear in the story. This list keeps you from putting too many characters into a story. It also serves a quick reference to keep pesky logical errors at bay.
Tip #2 Physical attributes – It’s important to keep track of all the physical attributes of important characters. Clipping photos of representative types can help with description. The age, height, weight, birthday, hair color, physical condition, skin color…all physical attributes should be listed for main characters
Tip #3 Character Questionnaires – Useful forms include questions that investigate the whole life of a character – secrets, beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, background, likes and dislikes. Questionnaires should include relationships: friends, family and enemies. Finally, gathering together unusual information about a character is also useful: good and bad habits, tics, and quirks.
Tip #4 Personality Profiles – Taking a personality profile for a character is eye opening piece of information. Take an online quiz and answer like you are the character. The results are worth keeping and will help you create authentic characters who act in accordance with their personality type. Popular personality tests include the Jung and Briggs Myers typology and the Ennegram type indicator.
Tip #5 Unusual Character Information – Some authors tape a session of “play acting” a character and use the result as reference. Others write a letter or keep a journal from their characters point of view to gain insight into the inner workings of a character’s mind. Creating emotional charts shows the rise and fall of a character’s emotions throughout a piece.

Take these tips to heart and choose an organization system that suits your style. If you are a low-tech sort, go with it. If you prefer to create your own organization system, do that. Don’t make a choice with excessive structure, if that’s not your style. The bottom line, choose an organization method that you will use.

Share this story
Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn
  • Great. One needs to find ways to track the characters. Sometimes you also have to come up a lot of names for a specific reason. Ie I had a charcacter setting herself up for a kidnapping. Problem obviously she did not want to be kidnapped, but wanted to draw the bad guys out so how to do so with maximum effect for drawing them out but least likely to be kidnapped. Weakest point is usually at arrival and or departure. Plan than an X and O board parking scheme, you control all nine spaces with victim's vehicle in slot five. This requires nine hidden persons in the vehicles being left, You still need body guards so say three more obvious and three discrete with one additional master controller. Sixteen at least. You then need to keep the names in place, and when the bad guys surprise you, you have to then keep in place any changes made. You system would work even for this challenge.
  • This story is interesting. In the book I'm writing, I include a list of 21 names, some dreamed up, some from the Bible and some from my life.