Controlling Characters In Your Book Before They Lose Control

Guest Post by Irene Watson

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 are often a few years apart, and I can’t seem to get enough of her wonderful quirky characters and their interesting existences. Precisely because I respect this author so greatly, I will not reveal her name in discussing the literary faux pas she made in her latest novel.

The mistake was in regards to the main character’s age. The main character is sixty years old. He is divorced with three daughters, the youngest of whom is still a teenager. At one point in the book, he meets another person who is age thirty-eight, which makes him recall that when he was thirty-eight he had already been divorced and had three children. The math here just simply doesn’t add up since his third daughter is a teenager when he is sixty.

Granted, the error is not as bad as when James Fenimore Cooper switched a character’s name halfway through a novel, but it is still a fairly large mistake. To avoid such errors, authors need to know every little detail about their characters, far more than they even tell their readers, and to keep good records of those details.

Two helpful suggestions for tracking character details are to create a family tree for the characters and to interview each character.

Family trees can be simple or elaborate depending on the story, the number of characters, and the detail required. The tree can be drawn on paper, but I highly recommend using a genealogy software program because much of the required information is laid out in a format for the author. Begin with the story’s main character, creating a listing in the genealogy program for him or her. Most programs will then ask basic genealogy information such as:  First, middle, and last name, nickname, title (Mr. Dr. etc.), birth and death dates, places of birth and death, place buried and sometimes place of baptism. Then a notes section will allow you to write additional information about the character and to provide sources for your information (the last you may need for genealogy but probably not for fictional characters).

Beyond the individual person, the program will then allow you to create a marriage for the main character, another separate entry for his wife, a date and place for the marriage, a box to check if they were divorced, and individual listings for the children. Of course, if the character is not married and does not have kids, no need to do so, but perhaps your novel ends before he meets his future wife, but you secretly know he will marry two years after the novel ends so you would like 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 do not appear in the novel, I think it’s important to figure out where this character came from. Create entries for his parents and grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Perhaps you had not thought about his grandparents before, but now if you decide they were immigrants from Croatia, it could make a big difference compared to if they were Jews from Brooklyn or Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. The family background is what usually shapes the character, his worldview, his motivations, fears, hopes and dreams.

Be sure you are specific with all the information you provide. In terms of dates, at the very least provide a year. Your character may be thirty years old and you’re writing the book in 2010, but by the time it’s published, it will be 2012. So does that mean he was born in 1980 or 1982, or is your book set in the 1960s, so maybe he was born in 1932 or 1938. You might even want to go so far as to make his birthday April 12 or December 3. Give birth years and possibly birth dates to all the other characters. Is it enough to say the main character’s grandparents were born in England, or do they need specifically to be born in York or London or Penzance? How does where his grandparents were born make a difference to the main character? Even if you never give specific years or dates in your novel, it can only make things easier for you in knowing these details for yourself.

It may seem like you are just creating unnecessary details, but these details will help you avoid discrepancies later so if you can’t remember how old the main character’s third daughter is, you can go back to check, and you can always change the facts in the genealogy program so long as you also change them in your novel. You will also be learning more about your character so he becomes multi-dimensional.

Interviewing characters is another great way to get to know and even to create them. I recommend you make up some kind of standard interview sheet, and you keep one for each character—especially the main character, but minor characters as well. The neighbor next-door character might need his own sheet—he might even need his own family tree. Most of the basic interview questions you would ask should already be in your genealogy program—name, date of birth etc. so the interview sheet is the place to find out not just details but what makes the character tick.

Be sure to include physical descriptions here. Of course, ask the basics about hair and eye color, height and weight, but then also consider how these might have changed. Was he born with blond hair but it turned brown by the time he was twenty? Did she weigh 250lbs in high school but is only 130lbs by the time she’s twenty-five? And of course, how did she lose the weight? What is your character’s most distinguishable feature? Is he happy with his physical appearance? Why or why not?

Find out all the details you can. Ask your character about his or her favorites: What is your favorite movie/book/flavor of ice cream? Find out the character’s past. What jobs have you held and when? What schools did you attend? When was your first date? When did you decide you wanted to be an astronaut?

How do other characters influence each individual character? If the main character’s grandpa died when he was sixteen, how did that effect him? If the main character decided when he finished college to move to Florida, how did his mother in Pennsylvania feel about her son being so far away? When Grandma left Italy after World War I, whom did she leave behind, and did she stay in touch with her family? How did Grandpa and Grandma raise the main character’s father, and how did that in turn effect how the main character was raised?

The questions you can ask are endless. The point is to ask a lot of 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 character and all the minor characters 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 it prevent you from making a mistake 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 have never forgotten the words of E.M. Forster: “Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out.” You want to create a world that appears real, a world that feels like it will live and continue on by itself even after the last page of the book is read. Keeping good details about characters is the start of making that fictional world appear a reality.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on March 5, 2010, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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