When we’re writing a novel, details threaten to swamp us. We waste time tracking them down. We waste time fixing them during editing. And when we mess up, we drive our copy editors—or our readers!—crazy.
A character chart can save time and headaches.
I use a simple table in Microsoft Word, but you can use Excel or Scrivener as well. The “search” or “find” feature in these programs allows you to quickly locate information. Since I write three-book series, I keep a running chart for the series to make sure I don’t duplicate names or overuse character features.
I set up the skeleton of my chart before I start the rough draft (I’m an outliner), enter information in the chart as I write the rough draft, then clean it up during the editing process. When I turn in my manuscript, I also send my character chart—the editorial staff at my publishing house loves this!
Here’s a snippet of the chart from my latest World War II novel, When Tides Turn, showing the main characters, Tess Beaumont and Dan Avery.
Since Dan and Tess are main characters, I include lots of details about them. With side characters, fewer details are needed.
Each named character receives a row in the table. I group characters by story function, such as “Avery family,” “WAVES” (Tess joins the Navy’s Women’s Reserve), “Navy Personnel” (for Dan’s colleagues), and of course, “other.”
The first column is for names. I can check my table for repetitions, too many names that start with M, and ethnic diversity. Since I use military settings, I include the character’s rank and promotion dates. Also include nicknames, including familial nicknames—do her children call her “Mom” or “Mama”? I also add “nonfictional” to any real historical figures mentioned in the story.
In this column, I state the character’s role in the story—“Dan’s father,” “Tess’s friend,” and their job. To keep the timeline straight, I often include graduation dates and when the character started or changed jobs or positions.
List the character’s family—birth order, names of parents, siblings, spouse, and children (not shown in this sample, since I have complete information for the Avery and Beaumont family members later in the chart). I also list the character’s hometown or region.
Self-explanatory! But it’s important to know the age of your characters, especially if the book or series spans a longer period of time, or for child characters who change rapidly. This also helps when checking backstory—for example, how old was my heroine when the stock market crashed in 1929? For minor characters, this might be only “middle-aged” or “early twenties.”
For major characters, I list height and weight, hair and eye color, and other significant features, including scars or disabilities. For minor characters, I only list what’s mentioned in the story, such as “lanky build,” “prominent chin,” “mustache.” Skimming the list can show if certain features are overused.
List any detail you need to track. Does the character wear glasses or speak Mandarin or walk with a limp? Is she a soprano, a tuba player, or a smoker? I include dates and nature of injuries (I’m mean to my characters!), so I can track their convalescence and make sure the cast doesn’t move from one arm to the other. I also include dates a character is killed or arrested (I told you I’m mean). In the example shown, I listed dates of prior romances to keep the backstory straight.
A Stitch in Time . . .
With a bit of work in advance, you can create a useful tool to save loads of time later. And your editor—and readers!—will love you.
Sarah Sundin is the author of nine historical novels, including When Tides Turn (Revell, March 2017). Her novel Through Waters Deep was a finalist for the 2016 Carol Award and won the INSPY Award. A mother of three, Sarah lives in Antioch, California.
When Tides Turn, March 2017
Anchor in the Storm, 2016
Through Waters Deep, 2015