For some reason, a lot of fantasy writers can’t help themselves when it comes to creating characters. The more the merrier, you might say.
However, to keep track of characters isn’t easy at the best of times, and more so when you’ve got lots of them. I can’t count how many times I’ve written a draft and put something like [whatever this character is called] because I actually can’t remember. And I don’t even have that many, not as much as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones at least.
In today’s post, I’ll be sharing some advice that has helped me to deal with all my characters in a way that doesn’t leave me pondering their names when the time comes to write about them.
Cut some down
“But I need 101 characters” – I hear you say.
Sorry, but I’d say the first step is to take an honest look at all your characters. Are they all essential? Can some of them be combined and condensed?
This is something that film/TV adaptations do occasionally. For example, a couple of prostitute characters in the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones are combined into one character. And honestly, with minor characters like this I don’t feel like we were missing a whole lot. I don’t think too many people were outraged over this choice.
So, if you’re finding yourself with too many minor characters, think about where you can realistically make cut-backs in order to make everything a bit easier to manage.
Doing this also forces you to think more carefully about the characters you do keep. You’ll be less distracted by Forgotten Character #46, leaving you free to concentrate on your main characters.
Create a family tree
Family trees are pretty common in fantasy novels, alongside the maps at the start. They’re often used to show royal lineage for the reader to refer to.
However, I guarantee that these family trees were not created solely for the reader. The writer made them for themselves, to keep track of characters and their relations to each other.
I would recommend doing the same, if you have a lot of related characters. You could write it all down in a list or draw a family tree diagram and pin it to your wall to see where everyone fits in at a glance.
Create biographies and fact files
You should know each of your characters inside out. Even the kind of details that don’t make it into your novel. This will help the characters feel real to you, and therefore to your readers.
Creating fact files and biographies/back stories for each of your characters helps you to flesh out each one.
It’s totally up to you how you do this. Some people like to write their back story out creatively. Others will have a list like this:
…and so on.
You can be as detailed as you want, everything from their favourite cheese to what drives them as a person. It may be that 99% of the facts you write down never make it into your novel but at least you know them.
Most of these details will be easy to fill in, but I’d recommend going deeper than physical appearance and traits and note down their goals, world-views and how they see others/themselves.
The more information you can get down the better.
Another reason why this is a good exercise is that it can highlight those times when your characters are too similar to each other. Each character needs to be unique – like real people are. I’m guilty of creating characters which all share the same attributes and it can be a bit of a wake-up call to see all their information written out like this.
So, keep a file on each of your characters, pin notes to your walls, create a story bible or have a file on One Note – just make sure your notes are somewhere that’s quick and easy to access.
Keep character cards
The downside to having files like this is that when you’re writing, you’ll have to break your flow to take a look at them.
When you’re in the thick of writing, got your mojo down, you don’t want to take a break to find out your main character’s mother’s maiden name.
That’s usually why I leave a [character name] note while I’m writing because I know if I stop to dig my notes out, I’ll have forgotten what I was writing.
In cases like these, you might benefit from having something like flash cards on your characters.
These are just small snippets of information you know you’ll need at a glance. Rather than referring to the massive fact files, you might prefer simple notes like:
If you have a wall free, these character cards can be handy to look at just above your desk. When it comes to writing about that character, there’s only a little break in your writing.
I’d still recommend having the lengthier fact files because I think it’s important to have all the finer details down, but when it comes to referring to a character quickly, you can make a shorter version like flashcards.
Do you have lots of characters in your novel or WIP? How do you keep track of so many characters? Please share your thoughts below.