Thursday, November 19, 2009

One Writer’s Journey in Keeping Track of Her Characters

When I first heard about the topic of writing tips and tricks, I got scared. I have yet to write a full-length novel – what could I possibly say to inspire people? Then I took a breath and really thought about it. I may still be working on that first novel, but I’ve taken a lot of workshops and tried different processes to find what works for me.

I’m a pantster so I don’t have outlines or plot boards. Everything is my head and this works well for everything but tracking my characters descriptions. Did this guy have a beard? Did that girl have gray or brown eyes? These things need to be tracked because going back through your story can be time consuming.

For the very first story I wrote (buried in my files waiting a major rewrite before it will see the light of day), I listed my characters on a piece of paper and made some simple notations. This doesn’t scale well and I went looking for something else.

There are plenty of example character sheets on the internet. Anywhere from 2 to 20 pages worth of questions. My brain seizes each time I sit and try to fill one out. Not the method for me.

I have a list of software programs different authors have said worked for them to use for plotting and research. The Super Notecard program from Mindola Software looked like it would work for keeping track of characters. The trial worked okay. I could have notecards on the laptop instead of piles of cards the kids would knock over and get out of order.

But my husband didn’t like it because you had to pay to fully activate it. Also he wanted to institute a server setup at the house and we’d need a copy for the server and my laptop. (What can I say, he’s a computer geek.) He suggested FreeMind – a mind mapping program. It’s free and java based so it works on any platform.

I’m still learning the program, but it’s going good. You’re also supposed to be able to organize research, so that would be a plus when I need it. You can add notes (like meaning of names or story ideas), insert links, and add pictures. You’re able to collapse and expand trees as you need them. Below are some maps I’ve created for stories I’m working on:

Template for Novels


Mended Hearts – fantasy story in progress


On Hidden Wings – paranormal romance in progress

16 comments:

  1. Thanks Sonja. Finally, I can give a tip and not steal all yours. ;)

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  2. Nice tip! I'm going to check that out. I'm always trying new methods for keeping track of my characters. Those 20 page questionaires don't thrill me either.

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  3. Hi Tricia - I'm always looking for something new. I hope something will just click.

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  4. Your husband sounds like mine.:) Thanks for sharing. I'm going to try this out.

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  5. So, took a look...it's not bad. The main problem is the terminology. And the help documentation is not too helpful with those unfamiliar with trees and traversing of said trees. (Yes, I do have a degree in computer engineering.) However, all that said, I can definitely see its usefulness. Going to try it out on my current WIP and see how it goes.

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  6. Okay, I'm hooked. I'm also using a plot point node to track crucial elements of the story since it's my first try at a suspense. I'm going to go back and use it on the Mates of the Guardian series to make sure I keep everything straight. Thanks for the great tip, Beth!

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  7. Great info, Beth! I'll have to check out Free Mind, though I typically use a system I developed - a Spec Sheet, where I list all the info related to each particular character. Just a Word doc, as simple or complicated as the story needs to be. It's always nice to know there are programs out there that will do the same, especially if they're free!

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  8. Great tips-- thanks. I'm always looking for something new and easy to keep me organized.

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  9. Emma - Yeah, documentation is always a problem with some freeware stuff. I'm used to just 'playing' with some stuff to see how it works. Glad you liked it.

    Cate - Free is always good. I like simple...but then again I want to write that first novel so I'm trying different things to get there.

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  10. Hi, Beth! I never kept up with all those details plotters do. I usually have it all in my head except for the intial 2-3 page proposal. Romantic plot points, character growth, and detailing my new worlds. I did try using sticky notes on a big blank wall to map out the character arc, etc. Let's just say the room looked like autumn with my whirling ceiling fan... So, go with the software. ;)

    On another note because I don't write out what's in my head like a true plotter, I've found it's easy to rework characters on the first revision by WORKING ONLY on his or her POV. Don't do both. Skip the hero's POV/scenes and just work on the heroine to straighten her personality & GMC kinks. This actually goes really really fast. ;)

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  11. Karen - Usually I'm very organized...except for writing. For some reason, organization seems to suck all the 'fun' out of writing. Since I've had kids by memory isn't what it used to be. So I have to find something to keep up with everything.

    Skhye - I can't really skip around. I have to write in order start to finish. I've always written that way. Might have something to do with loving chemistry and aerospace engineering labs but...every assignment has always been written straight through no skipping. I freeze up when I try to skip ahead.

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  12. Wow, thanks for sharing this. What a nice way to keep things in order!

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  13. Thanks, Beth! It's similar to a social worker systems chart. Love those. Like you, my mind seizes (perfect word, BTW) when I start filling out the overly detailed character charts. Maybe I'll actually use this one :)

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  14. Hey Pen - Yeah, I have lots of plans to try things and they never seem to work. Eventually something has to click. I hope I can stick with this system and get it to work.

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