Friday, August 3, 2012

Keeping Track of All Those Characters

This is both a blog about . . . and an invitation for advice.

When I started writing crime fiction I had so much fun coming up with new and interesting characters that I couldn't keep track of them all. It didn't even occur to me to try. After all, weren't these people as real to me as my flesh and blood friends?

I didn't think much about keeping track of characters till I recalled a story a friend told me. She liked amateur theater and signed on for a play. Her most important scene was cued by another actor, a man, telling the story of how Mr. SoandSo met his end. When the actor finished his part, my friend had to step in with her lines. The trouble was, the other actor told a different story about Mr. SoandSo every night. And no one else knew when the story was coming to an end. It made for some very tense performances.

When I started writing, my information about my characters was something like Mr. SoandSo--it kept changing. I kept scribbling notes about names and ages and eye color (I wasn't going to make Conan Doyle's mistakes and change eye color in the middle of a story) but that meant I had to go flipping back through the pages to find the information. About one hundred pages and far too many characters into the story I knew I had to get organized. My solution--a stack of notecards in a shoe box. This was before good writing software, and I confess I haven't caught up. But I have a good system.

Every character gets at least one card on which I record all the essentials--all the basic demographic information we seem to think is important but also all the details writers add to a story to give the character life. If you read everything in a series you know how your favorite sleuth takes her tea in the morning or why the boyfriend drives a particular car. But what about the landlady? When she shows up, do I remember how she wears her hair, or why she wears funky sweaters? Does Mrs. Alesander still have brown hair at her age? Do I remember that Hugh Chase went to Vietnam and became a pacifist? Did I remember that Winston Windolow belonged to a bike club? If I'm not sure what I said about Archer Ames, do I know where to look? How many books does he appear in? Do I know what chapters he appears in? If he has a file card I do.

File cards do the obvious, and any good software will do the job just as well (and many will argue software will do it better). But file cards have another purpose. I can lay them out on my desk, sort them by any number of categories, and get an idea if I have favored names with certain letters, one gender over another, certain ages. Has one character been reappearing in story after story, and if the answer is yes, does this suggest I should do something more with this one?

I once thought, so naively, that if I wrote it I would remember it. I confess I can barely remember what I wrote yesterday until I see it. If I did not have my note cards for each series, I would be reinventing people on every page, changing eye color, introducing lisps and limps, and generally confusing everyone. It would be an editing nightmare.

Using file cards to track characters is one system, a very simple basic one. I know there are others. What sort of system do you use?

Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series; the most recent title is The Wrath of Shiva: An Anita Ray Mystery (2012). She also writes the Mellingham series, featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva; she perfected her notecard system during the first in the series, Murder in Mellingham (1993).


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

I really like your idea and think I will use it in the future. And yes, I do have some difficulty keeping my characters straight.
I generally just use a notebook where I write the info for each character. But your idea makes more sense to me.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I realized I had to have a more sophisticated system than my haphazard notes when I couldn't remember how Joe took his coffee. I never thought about keeping track of that sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

Try Scrivener. It is a "word processor" designed for the novelist. You write in scenes and chapters and that's how your work is broken up in the program. Very easy to use & full of features. It also has ways to keep track of characters and attach other media like pictures to your research materials. Works with PCs and Macs. I love it.

susan furlong-bolliger said...


I like the idea of using a notecard system. I usually keep a separate file on my word processor for character traits. I started doing this after I noticed that I had changed the spelling of one of my character's names half-way through a story. Oops!

Jan Christensen said...

Susan, I always just made a Word document with everything about the novel I am writing (and sometimes a short story) thrown into it. Each character has their own paragraph, and I add eye color and other facts as I think I might need to remember them later. But I never thought it was a great system--easy enough to make the document, but harder to use it later. A friend of mine uses a spreadsheet, listing names (which, like with index cards can be sorted) and has columns for different characteristics, such as eye color, etc., which can also be sorted. So, four ways--as some have suggested Scribner, your way with the cards, my friend with the graph, and mine--just throw it all into a document. I am very tempted to try the other three. Thanks for this post.

About Bobbi C. said...

Hi Susan---I use notecards a lot for all sorts of things. I haven't actually used them yet to keep up with character traits, though--good idea! Funny you should mention the eye color thing since I did that in my LONE STAR DEATH novel. Eeek. Makes me feel better knowing that Doyle did it, too. LOL. bobbi c.

Jim Ingraham said...

I keep three documents on my clipbboard for easy access. The first is the draft of the novel. The second is a brief summary of each chapter in sequence so that I can review elements of the story without having to search through the ms. The third is a journal where I list the characters to remind me of details like what kind of car they drive, and where I post discussions about the plot and analyses of the characters. The third is a big grabbag containing stuff I've deleted from the draft but might go back to. It also contains stuff relating to clues.