Keeping Track of Your Characters – Who is Who and What Have They Done?

This week’s blog is another opportunity for me to share a technique that works very well for me during my writing process.  Throughout my personal and professional life, I have been horrible remembering names. I can remember phone numbers, addresses, and useless facts that make me desirable on any trivia team. The writing process has revealed my one memory flaw to be a challenge for me as well when it comes to remembering character names, physical descriptions, life events, and ages.

When I hand wrote my first novel in a series of notebooks, I found myself having to write character names and characteristics in the back of one of the notebooks so that I could flip back and forth whenever I needed to figure out who did what and where they came from.

When I switched to using Scrivener along with my laptop, desktop, and tablet (depending on where I was doing my writing), I tried to come up with a better way to organize my characters and their back story. Let me first say that I don’t like to plot out every detail of my characters’ back stories. I would rather have details revealed to me as they occur or are needed during the story. That being said, failing to keep key details about your characters could come back to bite you. You’ll want to keep track of their marriages, children, illnesses, education, and other things that might end up feed plot elements down the road.

So, how do I do this? I actually have two techniques that have helped me keep things straight. The first is a picture. I create charts, or what I call ‘character maps‘ that are like mini organizational charts for my characters showing who they are and how they relate to each other.

I’ve included one of these charts that I used for my second book as the cover image for this blog. The chart shows groups within some of the key families within the book and how the members relate to each other. In the view of the chart that I included, there are members of three families shown. One of the characters happens to be the murder victim within the book and her designated box is x’ed out to show that she is dead.

I keep the charts related to my current project along with the mind map (see last week’s blog) on a bulletin board near my desk at home. I also have an electronic version of each that I can bring up as needed when I’m writing on my computer while traveling.

Another tool that I use if I need more information on my characters is a matrix showing deeper details about the characters.  I use a row for each character and the columns are used for such details as the character name, what books they’ve appeared in, their physical appearance, etc.

Shown below is an example of the matrix for some of my characters in my Frank Rozzani detective series books:

Character Table

This matrix gives me a quick view of who the characters are, when they first appeared in my work, what their personality traits are, and what significant events shaped who they are. It has been extremely helpful to me and helps me to overcome my memory gaps. It also helps to cut down on inaccuracies that can plague authors when they are writing a series of books featuring the same characters . It may seem like a lot of work, but it can be helpful and actually save time in the long run.

I have seen other suggestions around organizing characters. There are those that espouse writing complete and detailed biographies for your characters. This may work for some authors. I have always been a person that prefers to work smarter and not harder. The information in the character map and the character matrix that I have shared have been enough for me to provide continuity to my work without locking me in to biographical details that might change the characters’ evolution.

I hope that this has been helpful to you as authors.  I believe that as an independent author, with some measure of success, sharing tips with you is the right thing to do. There are plenty of readers out there and if these tips help you to create a better product so that you can entice readers to your work, then I welcome you to use them.

I also wanted to thank those of you that have been reading my blog. Last week, I doubled my best  ‘viewership’ of this blog. As I continue to drum up ideas for a weekly blog, your suggestions are welcome. If there are questions that you have about writing or suggestions for some aspect of writing for which you’d like to see a blog, please let me know and I’ll be happy to entertain them.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available.

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com

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To Outline or Not to Outline – Or is There a Third Choice?

This week’s blog focuses on the topic of whether or not it is better to outline your book or short story before you dive in and write. When I wrote my first book, it was in the days before airplanes allowed tablet devices to be used during that down time before the flight took off. I fly through Atlanta from Jacksonville, FL every week and usually the time waiting to take off exceeds the actual flight time. During those dark ages when ALL electronic devices had to be off and stowed, I wrote my first novel completely in longhand in notebooks. It was an interesting exercise that was very time consuming. I not only had to type everything I wrote later on, but, being a left-handed refugee from Catholic school, my handwriting is pretty horrible and I often had to guess at what I had written.

Needless to say, I did not outline this first book. While it flowed fairly well, it did take a longer period of time to figure out what my characters would do next. I didn’t have an ending in mind and the middle of the book was a struggle.

When I sat down to write my second book, Let Me Be Frank, I had just read a book on how to outline novels. The book extolled the virtues of meticulously outlining the book and writing full character biographies. As I began to perform these tasks, I found that it felt to much like work. I wanted to write, not outline. It was slow going and eventually I abandoned the process and started to go back to my stream-of-consciousness ways.

One Saturday morning, however, a light bulb went on (it was the light in my office). After it was light enough to see my computer, I started pondering different ways to create a road map for my novel without the tedious and limiting exercise of outlining. Then it dawned on me. I had used a technique to lay out complex documents and presentations. I also used this technique to lay out my doctoral dissertation. It is called mind-mapping. Mind-mapping is a visual technique for laying out the things you want to include in your work and then sequence them.

Usually, when I lay out a work-related document or presentation, I know all of the components that need to be included, but I don’t always know the order. Mind-mapping works well for this. The issue in translating this technique to a novel is that you may not know all of the components at the beginning. What I found was that this technique allowed me to think through the story and set up those components at a high level. This helped me avoid the dreaded “muddle in the middle” syndrome where you have the beginning and end of the story set, but the journey to get from one to the other is not clear.

So, what is mind-mapping and how does it work?

It all starts with a white board or a piece of paper. The format is a hub and wheel type configuration. The hub is the title of the book, or if you don’t have one, some working title. You can put it in a circle or other shape right in the middle of whatever you’re drawing on. Then, if you know how your book is going to start, draw some shapes for those early chapters and put a one sentence description in each chapter. For instance, you might have someone getting kidnapped in your book. The first shape might say, “Chapter 1: Susie Gets Kidnapped.” The next shape might read, “Chapter 2: Susie’s Boyfriend Discovers Her Missing.” This continues as far as you can go. If you get stuck in the middle, go to shapes at the end of your map. Maybe the last shape will read “Chapter X: Susie is Found.” You don’t have to number these later chapters until you know how many you’re going to end up with.

Once you have set up the starting and ending chapters, think about how you are going to get from one to the other. It really pays off to take the time to think this through. Remember, you can always change your mind map easily if your characters take you off in a new direction.

This truly is a road map. I would compare your mind map to mapping out a route in an app like Google Maps. You know where you’re starting, you know where your destination is. You are presented with options for your route. You can pick the route that you think will work best, but, if you run into traffic or an accident along the way, you can change your route to get around it. Also, if you want to get off of your route to do some site seeing, you can do so easily and then rely on your app to get you back on your route. The process of mind mapping is just like this. You can change it along the way to suit your needs.

Mind mapping also translates easily into whatever tool you might be using to write your novel or short story. I use Scrivener, which is a very popular writing application. Scrivener actually has a cork board within the app where you can set up “index cards” with short descriptions of your chapters and scenes within those chapters. You can take the descriptions from the shapes in your mind map and put them directly into these index cards and you have a pseudo outline for your work that can easily be changed or rearranged.

Once you have your mind map created, keep it with you as you write so that you can move from chapter to chapter easily. Don’t be afraid, however, to make changes. Your writing should not be fenced in if new and exciting detours emerge during your creative process.

To see what a mind map looks like, I’ve set the image for this blog to be the mind map that I set up for my book, Let Me Be Frank. If you want more information on mind mapping, please be sure to post your questions or you can contact me through my web site and I’ll be glad to share what I have learned about them.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available.

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com