Character Mapping

The subject of character maps came up a few times over the last few days, including from my new editor (yay!). Since I’ve been cleaning mine up, I thought I’d share a bit about the process and what character maps do.

So, what are character maps for? Well, there are variants, as there are in any process; however, essentially they are a means to keep your characters organized, and assure consistency when you write. In planning your novel, character maps help you develop the characters and serve as storyboards for laying out traits, relationships, etc. For series, or even single books where time elapses in your story, this can be critical. For example, if your female lead is 5 foot 7 in chapter one, and five foot 5 in chapter 10, people will notice. One fellow writer relayed a story wherein a character had a close-cropped mohawk in one chapter, and long, loose hair only a few chapters later. Oops.

It happens, and having a structure will help. Irrespective of how you choose to structure your map, make sure you have written somewhere what defines your characters. As your characters grow, from chapter to chapter or book to book, your map will ensure that the traits that allow readers to form an affinity to them don’t undergo radical, accidental change – even if their physical appearance does.

What Makes SpongeBob SpongeBob?
Characters are defined by their traits, not by their appearance.

There are a number of websites where you can find free character map templates, as well as those integrated within some products, like Storyist.

At its most basic, you might want to consider a simple listing of traits (including how they are revealed, if you like).

I prefer to create my own, which I adapt according to what I think will be important to my story. However, there are some basic things I like to include. Rather than filling this post with a lot of words, I thought I’d share this more graphically.

I tend to develop character maps only for the most important characters, with more detail being provided for those who will dominate the story. How much detail you include is up to you, but some ideas are in the graphic above. At a minimum, I’d include basics like age, date of birth (it matters if time passes in your book), important life history, physical features, and personality traits).

For The Stream Series, which are character-driven books, I spent a lot of detail on personality traits and little quirks. By so doing, I generally know more about them than show up the books. I think it makes them seem more real. A side of effect is that it is quite easy to place them in new stories. I find myself writing adventures in my head as I fall asleep, sometimes with characters from other books.

Roxx (Hard as Roxx) is unabashedly my favorite character, and a very visual story. As such, my map focused as much on the visual as the personality. As I did with The Stream, I developed Myers-Briggs profiles, not to define the character, but to ensure I was consistent. I find it makes writing easier, since I know how the characters will react in situation. I’m pretty skilled at Myers-Briggs, so I can write the character and match it to the type later, but for beginners, starting with a profile will give you a pretty well defined basis. (Sorry, the above screenshot isn’t expandable – there’s super-secret unreleased stuff in this file.) However, the categories of information include physical description, physicality (athletic, sluggish, etc.), personality traits, defining childhood events, speech patterns, romance/sexuality, mental health, quirks, and a summary of what her role in the story is.

There are other things I find helpful as well, such as libraries of photos that I use to inspire characters looks, dress, etc. For family sagas, I sometimes craft a genealogy. It doesn’t have to complicated, just who begat whom, so you don’t lose track and confuse your readers.

Another file I refer to CONSTANTLY when writing The Stream series is my character listing. Since my characters age over the three books, I need to know how old everyone is at any point in the story. For adults, this isn’t so critical. But for kids, age is everything. To them, anyway. 🙂 You’d be surprised how often you forget whether the speaker is 16 or 17, or have to check to make sure you didn’t just age them a year in a three-month span of the book.

Likewise with the personality trait listing, it’s frustrating to the reader if your star is shy in chapter 2 and the life of the party in chapter 3, with no explanation for the change. Mistakes take readers out of the story. Once they are out, they could abandon your book.

I redacted some stuff that hasn’t been published yet, but hopefully, you get the idea. As I said, there are any number of ways to do these. I hope this gives you some ideas.

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  1. Pingback: Writing Interesting Characters | This Blog Intentionally Blank

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