Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Character Tracking Optional

This week's question: Those in the writing know often suggest that writers prepare character profiles for each of their major characters. If you follow this approach, what do you tend to highlight? And if not, how do you keep track of your characters as the story progresses?

When I first started writing the Clare series, I was a bit of a keener. I was new to writing and I wanted to do everything right. (That's how green I was—I still thought there must be a formula for how to write right.)

I used my Outlook email software to create a contact profile for each character—major or minor—who appeared in Dead Politician Society. I kept track of their age, date of birth, vehicle model, physical appearance, education level, socioeconomic background—basically, any detail I dropped into the story, plus any more details that felt relevant to their character composition even if those details never saw print (like the fact that Clare's a Capricorn, which I never mention, but it helps me shape her personality and know what time of year her age changes).

I continued this tracking through Death Plays Poker, and while I don't remember if I ever had to consult the electronic index cards, it was comforting to know that as the series progressed, I could grow the cast in my head without worrying about being tripped up by a lapse in memory.

Then tragedy struck. I had been using a free trial of a shiny new version of Microsoft Office. When the trial expired, I decided I was quite happy to stick with the old version I'd bought a few years earlier (rather than spend the $600 they wanted for the new version). But lo and behold, I'd been tricked. By saying yes to the trial, I had inadvertently agreed to delete the previous version. I could either pay the $600 or have no software at all. My emails and help tickets to customer service were ignored, and I could not find a phone number to reach a Microsoft employee in person. So I switched to Apache Open Office, a free software that's compatible with MS Office and several other programs. I could access all my Word files, and I could still use Track Changes and read comments from my editor who uses Word, but my email contacts were lost.

I contemplated rebuilding my intricate web of character notes. But by that time, I was writing my third book, and I was much more relaxed about my writing process. (I had learned that as far as writing goes, there really are no rules of right and wrong.) A few times, I wished I still had that info. For example, I couldn't remember if I'd made Clare 5'4” or 5'6” (the height I am vs. the height I wish I was!). So I trawled through a couple of scenes in previous novels where I thought I might have made reference to her height. After a careful scan, I couldn't find a specific height, so I felt comfortable making the choice for the first time. (I think I went with 5'4”, though I'd have to check to be sure!)

Right now I'm working on a standalone thriller, and Scrivener is my software of choice. I'm not as worried about forgetting a character's height or vehicle make, since I'm only working with this cast for the duration of one novel, but I do have index cards within the software where I jot down their backstory, their growth arc (if they're a major character), their role in the story's progression and outcome, and their feelings about the other characters in the story. I sometimes interview characters, ask them to describe their first kiss or their most embarrassing high school memory, etc. Those details go into their file too. This way, if I'm stuck in a scene and not sure where to go with it, I can refer to a character's file and draw inspiration from the whole of who they are.

If I return to the Clare series or start a new one down the road, I probably will set up files for characters again. But I also might not. We'll see!

P.S. Apologies in advance that I won't be around to reply to comments until Sunday. My husband and I are headed up north fishing, and we're told the Internet and cell service at the lodge will be spotty at best. I'm looking forward to being off the grid.


RJ Harlick said...

Good for you, Robin. It all sounds so organized and is probably something I should do. I'm afraid I am one of those writers who keeps character profiles in my head. As a result I often forget which colour of eyes or other features I gave the poor suckers, so find myself frantically searching through my manuscript or previous books looking for the answer. Hope you caught lots of fish.

Susan C Shea said...

Scrivener is almost too clever for me. I get lost in the intricacies of the software at times. Need to do the tutorial again, I think. But good for you - no doubt, it's a writer-friendly, always evolving software.