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).