Keeping track of your characters

Sunday, December 16, 2012
Credit | Flickr Keyofnight
In graduate school for creative writing, I had a classmate who conceived of an elaborate way of tracking her characters. She combed consumer magazines clipping advertisements for furniture, perfume, and clothing that her characters would buy. In three-ring binders, she would carefully glue her characters' homes onto pages and pages.

When she returned to edit her work, she could review the pages and center herself in her characters' lives.

But what if you are, like I am, not as meticulous at tracking your character details? In Margo's question posted last week, she wondered what are some good ways to keep track of character details? I have a couple ways that I keep track, but they are generally not cut-and-paste and a three-ring binder.

First, I find that with my work, I like to start writing first. After I've written several pages, I backup and develop my characters' personalities outside of my story. Sometimes I'll take out an unlined piece of paper and sketch what I think my main characters look like. But mainly I will build out the characters by building their bio.

Some writers prefer doing this electronically (in a spreadsheet, for example). I prefer to write about my characters in a handmade spreadsheet on a piece of notebook paper. Pen to paper allows me to doodle and write in the margins--something I feel is more free flowing and creative.

What do I write down? Here are some suggestions to start with (some more obvious than others):
  1. Age (this will color a lot going forward)
  2. Eye and hair colors and other physical traits
  3. Education
  4. Favorite book or music
  5. Likes and dislikes (foods, movies, cars, clothes)
  6. Major motivation(s)
  7. Describe what is in his/her pocket/purse
 And if I'm editing and, as the author, had forgotten to create the spreadsheet, I will start the spreadsheet as I edit. As I find gaps in my descriptions of the characters, it becomes an exercise of filling in the blank. Such a system can also help to flesh out errors in the characters' descriptions when you find that the main character has blue eyes on page 10 and brown eyes on page 54.

What characteristics do you generally come up with first in your writing? 

Also, if you have a question about editing (or writing), ask in the comments section and I'll (try to) answer  you in my next post.

Elizabeth King Humphrey received her master's in creative writing from UNC Wilmington. One of her professors, Clyde Edgerton, has written some very colorful characters--check out his work if you haven't had a chance.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Elizabeth--Your list serves as a good reminder. If we don't know our characters well, how can we expect our readers to get to know them and love (or hate) them?

I like to know what their pet peeves are, what their mannerisms are, and what kind of clothes do they tend to wear.

Thanks for the post, since I am 1/3 of the way into a crashed and burned NaNo project, but still plugging away---slowly.

Angela Mackintosh said...

We have a GREAT Character Trait Chart and Personality Components Worksheet posted on WOW that I suggest you all check out. It has almost everything I can think of! The personality components chart is extremely helpful.

Margo Dill said...

Thanks, Elizabeth and Ang. Now, I need to actually do it. This last novel I'm working on, I did character traits/profiles before I started writing in a notebook and I can barely read my handwriting! :)

Anonymous said... has a great way to organize your story, character, plots, scenes-- and keep it all online. Great advice and questions to ask in this article as well.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I've always felt I need to focus more on character development at the very beginning of writing, but I tend to focus instead on just getting the setting written down right away. Do you find developing characters immediately is typically the most effective, or is it sometimes equally effective to develop setting and then think about the kinds of people who would inhabit that setting?

--Sara Felsenstein from

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