Managing Characters

I discovered, as I was reviewing plot scenes in my mind and preparing to start writing, that I need to do more to develop my secondary characters. Then I realized that my goal was a lot more complicated than I first assumed. First of all, how do I even determine who is a secondary character?

Managing characters is a major task when you write a series of novels that cover more than two or three books and span several years of plot time. I spend much of my writing time working on keeping track of my characters. Simply writing them into a story isn’t enough. I need to be able to keep track of them. More importantly, I need to understand who they really are.

The main tool I use to manage characters is Scrivener. Early in my writing career I used to use note cards – 5×8 for characters, 3.5 for plot events. But over time, I have converted everything to Scrivener. Scrivener allows me to create an alpha-sorted document, which contains all the critical information associated with that character.

In my Scrivener file for the Hot Dog Detective series,  I have several folders with character files in them (each character in my stories gets his/her own file page).

There is major folder called Characters (a default folder in Scrivener) that has all the characters in the series. A smaller folder has the main characters of the series. This  includes MacFarland, Pierson, Rufus, and most of the individuals who have frequent contact with those three characters.

Then there are a series of folders for each novel I write that has the characters unique to that specific story. Eventually these will be merged into the main Character folder, but I usually keep the book folders active for a while in case I have to refer back to an earlier novel.

Finally there are a collection of folders for each of the trilogy stories. I keep the characters that are unique to each trilogy in each of those folders.

The information on each character file is essentially the same, though the amount of information recorded varies depending on how important the character is to the story.

  • Character name
  • Letters to identify the story in which the character appears
  • A picture of the character (usually only for important characters that I describe in any detail)
  • Background information about the character (spouse, children, parents, date of birth, date married, etc.)
  • Short description of the character’s role in the story
  • In some cases, a table that contains a timeline of the character’s life
  • Scene descriptions in which the character appears in the story
  • Sometimes pictures of the characters home, vehicle, or other props associated with the character – usually these are weapons the character might have used

Here is an example of a very minor character’s file:

Benson, Stu
The man who “bought” Loreena
Rapes her, but when she fights back, he kills her
CC53 – Chamberlain says he was arrested.

The file for a major character can be several hundreds of words long.

The issue I am currently facing is whether I want to include more detailed descriptions of the motivations and psychology of certain characters. Yes, I already do this for my main characters. But do I want to do it for secondary characters?

So this is the question I propose: Just how much information about a character should a writer have? And what other tools do writers use to help define the content and limits of this information?

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