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Keeping Track of Characters When Writing Fiction
Recently, one of my favorite authors, a very well-known one, published a new book. I always buy her books as soon as they come out because they’re often years apart and I can’t get enough of her wonderfully quirky characters and their fascinating existences. Precisely because I respect this author so much, I will not mention his name in discussing the literary wrong step He made it in his latest novel.
The mistake was the age of the main character. The main character is sixty years old. She is divorced with three daughters, the youngest of whom is still a teenager. At one point in the book, he meets another thirty-eight-year-old man, who reminds him that when he was thirty-eight he was already divorced and had three children. The math here just doesn’t add up because her third daughter is a teenager at sixty.
Granted, the error isn’t as bad as when James Fenimore Cooper changed a character’s name halfway through a novel, but it’s still a fairly big mistake. To avoid such pitfalls, writers need to know every little detail about their characters, even more than they tell their readers, and keep good records of those details.
Two helpful tips for tracking down character details are creating a family tree for the characters and interviewing each character.
Family trees can be simple or elaborate, depending on the story, number of characters, and details needed. The tree can be drawn on paper, but I recommend using a genealogy software program because most of the information needed is put into a format for the author. Starting with the main character of the story, create a list for him or her in the genealogy program. Most programs will then ask for basic genealogical information such as: first, middle and last name, nickname, surname (Mr. Doctor etc.), date of birth and death, place of birth and death, place of burial and sometimes place of baptism. Then a Notes section will allow you to enter additional information about the character and provide sources for your information (the latter may be necessary for your genealogy, but probably not for fictional characters).
In addition to individual persons, the program will allow you to create a marriage for the main character, another separate entry for his wife, the date and place of the wedding, a box to check if they are divorced, and separate lists for children. . Of course, if the character isn’t married and doesn’t have children, there’s no need to do that, but maybe your novel will end before he meets his future wife, but you secretly know that he’ll get married two years after the end of the novel, so you Want to create this information anyway.
Almost as important as the character’s current marriage and children is information about his family background. Even if his parents and grandparents don’t appear in the novel, I think it’s important to figure out where this character comes from. Make entries for his parents and grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Maybe you didn’t think about his grandparents before, but now if you decide that they’re immigrants from Croatia, that makes a big difference compared to Jews from Brooklyn or Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. Family background usually shapes the character, his worldview, his motivations, fears, hopes and dreams.
Make sure you are specific with all the information you provide. In terms of dates, provide at least one year. Your character may be thirty years old and you’re writing the book in 2010, but it will be 2012 by the time it’s published. So does that mean he was born in 1980 or 1982 or your book is set in 1960, so maybe he was born in 1932 or 1938. You may even want her birthday to be on April 12 or December 3. Is it enough to say that the main character’s grandparents were born in England, or do they need to be specifically born in York or London or Penzance? Does how his grandparents were born make a difference to the main character? Even if you don’t put specific years or dates in your novel, it can make things easier for you just to find out these details for yourself.
It may seem like you’re just making up unnecessary details, but these details will help you avoid inconsistencies later so if you can’t remember how old the main character’s third daughter is, you can go back and check and you can always change the facts as long as the genealogy program No you change them in your novel. You learn more about your character so that he becomes multi-dimensional.
Interviews are another great way to get to know characters and even create them. I suggest you make some kind of standard interview sheet, and you have one for each character—especially the main character, but also the minor characters. The next-door neighbor character might need his own mantle—he might even need his own family tree. Most of the initial interview questions you’ll be asked should already be in your genealogy program—name, date of birth, etc. So the interview sheet is the place to find out what makes the character tick, not just the details.
Be sure to include physical details here. Of course, ask about hair and eye color, height and weight initially, but then also consider how this might change. Was he born with blonde hair but turned brown in his twenties? Did he weigh 250 pounds in high school but only weigh 130 pounds at age twenty-five? And of course, how did he lose weight? What is the most distinguishing characteristic of your character? Is she happy with her body shape? Why or why not?
Find out all the details you can. Ask your character about his preferences: What is your favorite movie/book/flavor of ice cream? Find out the character’s past. What work did you do and when? What school did you attend? When was your first date? When did you decide you wanted to be an astronaut?
How do the other characters affect each individual character? If the main character’s grandfather died when he was sixteen, how did that affect him? If the main character decided to move to Florida when he finished college, how did his mother in Pennsylvania feel about her son being so far away? When Grandma left Italy after World War I, who did she leave behind and did she keep in touch with her family? How did Grandpa and Grandma raise the main character’s father and how did that affect how the main character grew up?
The questions you can ask are endless. The point is to ask many questions. You are responsible for telling the story of this character’s life, even if the story only takes place over a few days or years. You want to get it right. You want to know the main characters and all the lowercase letters inside and out. Often this additional information can lead to ideas for more books—even sequels or spin-offs.
Be a good data collector. Not only will this prevent you from making mistakes about your characters, but it will create richer, more realistic characters that your readers will enjoy.
The great magic of writing fiction is in the details, and the more you know, the better. I’ve never forgotten EM Forster’s words: “Expansion. That’s the idea the novelist must cling to. Not closure. Not roundness, but openness.” You want to create a world that feels real, a world that feels like it will live on and continue on its own long after the last page of the book has been read. Having good descriptions of the characters is the beginning of making that fictional world a reality.
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