This morning I wrote a scene in which my character thinks about his dead parents, and I had to stop and figure out whether I had mentioned in previous books what happened to them. It was real “duh” moment. My solution—to prevent readers from e-mailing me about “character mistakes”—is to go back and write a character development history. Then keep it updated as I go along. Read more →
I recently set up a character database in Excel, and when I posted about it on Twitter/Facebook several people contacted me and asked “What’s a character database?” Sensing that this subject might be interesting to others, I decided to share the details. First, let me say that I’m not an Excel whiz kid, so trust me when I say that this file set up is really straightforward.
This type of database is especially useful if you write a series, and I finally set it up because I got tired of having to look back to see how I had described a character in a previous novel or to search endlessly for the name of a street. I started the file in a Word document, but that was too messy and didn’t allow nifty sorting features.
First, I established the column headers across the top. I’m still tweaking as I go, but for now I have:
- First name
- Last name
- Car, address, phone
- Other details
- Book title 1 (The Sex Club)
- Book title 2 (Secrets to Die For)
- Book title 3 (Thrilled to Death)
- Book title 4 (The Baby Thief)
Most of these headers are self-explanatory, but the Category column is where I assign the character’s level: 1=main character/recurring, 2=main character/specific to novel, 3=villain, 4=secondary character/recurring, 5=throwaway characters.
Next I listed the characters by row and inserted relevant information. I still have to go back into The Sex Club and find/input all the secondary characters, but with my new novel, I’m adding to the database every time I add important details to the manuscript. (For example, if my character dyes her hair, buys a speed boat, or adopts a pet monkey.)
What’s great about this file is that each column can be sorted individually. I separated out the first and last names so I could alphabetize/sort each list individually. So if I come up with the name Kirstin, I can quickly sort first names and check the middle of that column and see how many characters have first names that start with K. Yikes! Better come up with a different name.
The purpose of the book title columns is to be able to sort by title. I simply put an X in each column title that the character is present in. Then if I’m working in book 3, I can sort by that column and have all the book 3 characters come to the top of the spreadsheet, allowing me easy access to their information. And if I have one of those moments when I’m wondering, Was Officer Chang in my first story or just my second?— it’s easy to find out.
Important reminder: Even if you’re sorting by a single column, be sure to highlight all your data so the information for each row/character stays together. I hope you find this idea useful (and comprehensible). Feel free to ask questions and make suggestions. It’s not perfect by any means.
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