Wait, didn’t she have blue eyes?
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
I wanted to keep this for the last post because this is a little bit different—it’s more preemptive. Keeping track of your characters will help you edit when it comes down to it, yes, but it will also help you from making the mistakes in the first place.
The characters in general
Thanks to our illustrious founder Brandi Spencer, I have an information tracker for all of my characters. There is so much information in there that it can sometimes be a little overwhelming, but it’s been invaluable for making sure that I don’t forget names of minor characters or physical features of some of the more frequent characters.
So what should you keep track of in this section?
A lot of times this is information that you as the author will feel very obvious and unnecessary to write down, but let me tell you, you’ll be happy you did if you ever take a sabbatical from your WIP to start another one, or because life gets hectic. And right now, life is very easy to become hectic thanks to the pandemic. So, your very basics should at least be:
Names—first, last, and nickname
Birthplace—either their country of origin or city of origin, or both
Description—this will be their relation to the protagonist(s)
For me, I added a few extra bits of information because I’m keeping track of characters across a series of six books and otherwise, I might forget when the characters appear. These are the extras that I need a little help remembering sometimes:
Titles—this is both for the military titles and noble titles, and when they change in the series
Books in which they first appear
My absolute favorite example to give of why it’s important to keep track of physical features both for yourself—and to hopefully share with your editors or publishers to ensure a cohesive picture—and your readers is from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series with Dell Publishing. Her main character Claire (Beauchamp Randall) Fraser is very well reported to have whiskey-colored eyes (light brown), but in one of the books her eye color was definitely not the correct one. With this information readily at your fingertips, it will be easier to avoid small mistakes like that.
I will note, very strongly, that everyone makes mistakes, whether you're self published, published with a small press, or a large publishing company, and these mistakes should not be villainized. Authors and editors alike are human, and there’s only so much you can catch.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m bad at writing character descriptions and leave them as scant as I can get away with. Unfortunately, you need to know the basics of what your characters look like aside from, “She’s pretty and has brown hair.” So what do you need to look for? Here is what I’ve got to help me keep track of my characters physical appearance:
Hair color, texture, and style
Corresponding actor—for those of you who are like me, you might need some visual aids to help you fill out your information or visualize facial expressions on a similar face
This, I find, is one of the hardest to nail down as an author because a lot of times I want to keep track of characters in “good” and “bad” columns, but that’s just not how the world works in real life, and it’s now how your world should work in your books. Every person has positive and negative traits, and sometimes the positive traits that your characters have are actually negative because of their motivations. These are all the things that make well-rounded characters to make a richer world for your readers.
The positive traits are almost always the easiest to come up with because we like to see the good in people. We’re breaking this down into a couple of categories. For your positive traits, you want to look at four things: moral, achievement, interactive, and identity. You might be looking at that list and say, “What in the heck does that mean?” Don’t worry, I’ll give a brief description of each.
Moral is what influences the mortality of the character, like their loyalty and honesty. Achievement is the characteristic(s) that helps the characters reach their goals, like their adventurous nature, boldness, or curiosity. Interactive is how your characters interact with the other characters in the book, like being flirtatious or courteous. And finally, identity is how the characters truly identify with themselves, like being passionate about things or imaginative.
For the negative, there’s a little bit less to examine. You want to look at the character’s core flaws and their lesser flaws. There’s also the motivation behind the character’s actions, and you can tie that into both the positive and the negative traits, but I want to tie it mostly into the negative traits because often times we have more motivation for our negative traits than our positive ones, and sometimes our positive traits have negative motivations...which in turn makes them more negative than positive. So what would your core flaw and lesser flaws look like?
Your core flaw is the heart of the matter that will help influence your lesser flaws, like being manipulative and greedy. With these flaws, your lesser flaws would slide into being controlling and inflexible. Things are going to be the way that character wants, no matter what they have to do to get it.
Now, this is where I think tying the motivations in the negative trait is a lot more useful to understanding the character compared to the positive traits. Let’s take the negative traits listed above and explore some internal and external motivations for why your character is the way they are. Greedy and manipulative could stem from growing up in poverty and wanting to better themselves by any means necessary, such as manipulating others and hoarding wealth so as not to lose it.
If all this sounds great, you can download a blank copy here.
Join us in two weeks when we start a series on another branch of editing: Continuity.