Writing Toolbag: Character Notes

If there’s one thing guaranteed to annoy most readers, it’s when they discover some dramatic discrepancy with a beloved character.  Note here, I didn’t say “main” character, I said beloved character.  And as a writer, oftentimes you don’t have any control whatsoever over what characters your readers might take a liking to (in fact, I’ve several readers who have polar opposite likes and dislikes in my series) .

I still remember my first draft of my first novel, where I’d mentioned the name of a character’s cat near the beginning and (horror of horrors) used a different name for the cat near the end.  I’ve noticed errors with other authors (even mainstream ones) where character’s eye color and hair color have changed, height has dramatically changed, and parents/family details have changed.  These aren’t game-ending, but those kinds of errors are annoying to readers, they show a lack of consistency, which can come off as laziness or ineptitude… both of which are impressions you don’t want to give your readers.

So how does a writer maintain consistency with one’s characters, especially over multiple books?  A few authors I’ve talked with keep the details in their heads.  If you’ve a eidetic memory, I suppose that works, but for the rest of us mere mortals, notes are not just a good idea, but a necessity.

What goes into character notes?  It doesn’t have to be much, really.  A short physical description, family details (if important), birthday, and then any details about them that you plan to use in your writing.  Some authors I’ve met use 3″ x 5″ notecards, some have Excel spreadsheets, and others use word and just have typed notes.  The intent is to write it down somewhere so that you don’t have to remember it, you can just look it up.  As you write more, you can add more details to your notes as they become pertinent.

Such a simple thing is not only good for maintaining consistency, but also for speeding your writing flow.  When you get to a passage where you mention the character’s great aunt showing up, you don’t have to stop writing to go back and look her name up, sifting through your earlier works.  You can put a marker there and keep writing, secure in the knowledge that you’ve got the detail in the notes.

The downside of notes, of course, is that you have to take the time to keep them accurate and up to date.  A couple people I know use their smart phones for this, creating their notes on their phones so they can update their notes anywhere: waiting in line, riding a bus, whenever and wherever they have time.  The same can be said for the 3 x 5 index cards.  Whatever method you use, having character notes that you haven’t updated or filled out is of little use.

That’s all for now.  Thanks for reading!

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2 thoughts on “Writing Toolbag: Character Notes”

  1. And some authors use their fan’s wiki sites to reference details. Or, at least that is the story told by Rowling about the Harry Potter series.

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    1. I don’t think I have a fan quite that dedicated, just yet. If I did, I’d gladly foist that off upon them! Then again, my notes has spoilers (some from five, even ten books ahead) so I might not at that.

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