Series Writing: Managing Character Information - article

Have you ever noticed how, in TV miniseries, a character that starts out as a good guy or gal morphs into a villain or villainess as the series progresses? And how sometimes this is rather awkward, and you question the character’s motivation? It seems as if the writers are making things up as they go along, doesn’t it? Whether you are writing a TV script or a book series, this just won’t do. Each character’s actions and characteristics are immortalized within your writing. If jolly old Uncle Buck is the kindest, most generous member of the family in book one, but by book three he’s a serial killer, you’d better have a logical and feasible progression from one to the other. So how do you do this?

Author, literary agent, and blogger Nathan Bransford has devised what is the arguably the best practice for managing characters throughout a series. He calls it the “Series Bible.” The Series Bible actually manages everything within the series: settings, names, characters, plot points etc. Within the series bible is the “character bible.” The character bible should contain everything about any character that might come to the forefront in the series. It should serve as an ongoing cross-reference for you as the series develops. Did the character have any distinguishing facial or speech characteristics? How about physical description? Short, tall, fat, skinny, handsome, average, ugly, quirky? You can’t make a character a brute in book three if he’s a wimp in book one (unless of course you have a chapter on his physical transformation.) You can’t have the perky blonde solve the mystery if she was originally introduced as the stereotypical airhead.

Here are some simple steps for compiling a character bible:

1. Create a template or worksheet that you can use for each character to outline the key components of that character:
a. List the physical description of the characters. Hair color, eye color, body style, height, etc.. If an eye patch is important for the grizzled old bartender, make sure you catalog it.
b. Note the age, gender, ethnicity, race, and religion of your characters
c. Identify things like home town, current town, occupation,
d. Define their clothing style,
e. Document their living environment; how is it decorated? What is his/her living situation – an apartment, dorm, hotel, mansion, or bus station?
f. What kind of personal property do they have that will show up in the story and help define the character? A car, an iPhone, a pet?
g. List any distinguishing character traits they might have. Don’t have the most loquacious character sit and listen to a boring monologue later in the series without saying anything.
h. What is the character’s back story? This may not be included in the story directly, but it should certainly inform the story.

2. List what role in your series each character is going to play. Is the character the protagonist, antagonist, a supporting character (love interest, confidant?), or a minor character? What you track for a minor character is likely less than what you’d track for the protagonist… but use your template anyway and fill in what matters based on the character type.

3. Create a character relationship chart to track how each character knows each other.

4. Identify how the character is involved in the story. That is, are they part of the main plot or a sub plot? How and when will they show up? Even if you don’t know this ahead of time, consider documenting it after the fact. This way, when you are in book 6 you can recall major events of each major character in books 1-5. Note where in the story they fell in love and with whom, when they got divorced, had kids, murdered a spouse, where they’ve traveled to, etc.

5. Create a character’s name file that you can pull from. Come up with great names for your characters based on who they are – ethnicity, race, gender, where they live, quirks (if mom is a 60’s love child it’s possible her daughter, friend, or old school mate might be named Summer rather than Sally), and the time in which they live (what were the popular girl’s names in 1980?).

It’s easy to be consistent with your characters, regardless how many installments your series contains, if you create characters that are distinct, and if you take the time to clearly define and catalog them in the character section of your series bible. And, it will save you a lot of time and frustration, since you won’t forget that teacher’s name or that cousin’s workplace.

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