05-26-18 – Blog Queen - Sarah Raplee

Friday, April 27, 2012

Organizing Unruly Characters

You’re a newcomer to a group. You walk into the room and someone introduces you to half a dozen people. There’s a Mark and a Mike, a Linda and a Lynn. Last names are a blur. Why do they all seem to start with “W” or “C”—Watson, Weaver, Wilson…Clark, Cook, Clancy?

If you’re like me, trying to keep the names of new acquaintances straight isn’t easy. And when the names start with the same letter or sound alike, it’s even worse. That’s why I try to ensure the names of characters in my books—even minor ones—begin with different letters and are as distinctive as possible. To accomplish this, I create a Character Spreadsheet to keep my unruly characters organized. (I’m better at orgranizing characters than I am at organizing myself.) Here’s a sample of the headers in the Character Spreadsheet for the 1938 manuscript I’m currently fine-tuning: First Name ... Last Name ... Role ... Physical Description ... Personality Characteristics. The information I entered for my hero is: First Name-Ed, Last Name-Nelson, Role-Hero, Physical Description-Age 32. Mahogany hair, green eyes, 6', Personality/Characteristics-Loyal. Brave. Lonely. Smart/college educated. (Couldn't figure out how to load the spreadsheet--sorry!)

This spreadsheet can be sorted by First Name or Last Name to make it easy to see if you have a plethora of characters with similar first or last names. I developed this AFTER I had to go back and change character names in a prior book to eliminate problems. While I didn’t have problems with the names of my hero and heroine, I had oodles of duplications with my minor and walk-on characters. It was almost as if I had a part of a tune stuck in my head that prompted me to name characters with the same first letter—Marley, Martha, May, Mike, Myrtle, Myriam. Doing a search-and-replace in Word after the fact is a much bigger pain than entering information into a spreadsheet at the get-go. It certainly helps me pick up on the fact that a beginning letter or sound is on a repeating loop in my brain. Also a global search-and-replace simply isn’t an option if you need to change a name like Ed to Norman or May to Shirley. Try that and you wind up with results like this: “She edited NormanitNorman the manuscript. He May Shirley love her.”

Another advantage of my spreadsheet organization is that I scan down the Physical Description column to see at a glance if I’ve populated my novel with all green-eyed beauties, accidentally creating a “Stepford Wives” effect. It also lets me make sure I don’t indicate a character’s height or hair color one way on page 10 and another way on page 130.

I create a similar Timeline/Chapter spreadsheet to track when and where things happen. I don’t do this in advance, but add the basics for each chapter after I write it. Then, if I change my plot later, I can go to the spreadsheet and find where I need to make changes. The headers on that spreadsheet are: Chapter No ... Pages ... POV ... Date/Time ... Events ... Characters.

As a reader, do similar names annoy/frustrate you? As an author, how do you keep your characters and timelines on the straight and narrow?


Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Linda,
Great blog. You sound so organized. I am afraid I am rather on the haphazard side with things, that's why I can so easily get myself into a mess.



Linda Lovely said...

Wish I could say I was organized. I need some tools because I can wander off without warning.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

With novels, there are so many characters that making a spreadsheet is really a great idea. I'll try that with the next one. Thanks Linda.

Ashantay said...

Super blog, Linda! Love the spreadsheet approach.

Christy Carlyle said...

Thank you, Linda! This is such a helpful post. I love the spreadsheet idea. I have used index cards or other ways of keeping notes on characters, but a spreadsheet makes more sense because of the sorting feature. I'm starting one for my current WIP today. :)

Cindy Sample said...

Thanks, Linda. Now I know why your books are so well written. I once changed a character's name from Mark to Greg so every time someone "remarked" it was turned into "regreged." So much for the replace function.

I love the spreadsheet concept. Off to bond with Excel!

Pauline B Jones said...

I just started using Scrivener and I like it because I can see the character names in a window besides my writing window. Easy to click back and forth to note details as they happen. So far I really like the program.

Linda Lovely said...

Sounds as if several of us have the same problems. But there's no way (never say never) I'm going to go to another piece of software for writing. That is unless Word becomes impossible and each new version makes me expand my vocabulary with words my mother never uttered.

Diana Mcc. said...

Great post! Wish I was as organized as you! I use colored index cards for my characters. I put names and physical attributes, which chpts they appear in. In answer to your question, it does drive me a little nuts when the characters names are too close in sound. Especially in a book I'm reading. The other thing that bothers me is when the author takes a really off the wall or weird name that I don't know how to pronounce.

Sarah Raplee said...

I think I'll try this in my next book. I need to be more organized. Great post!

Robin Weaver said...

Hi Linda,

I suppose it won't surprise you that your critique partner also keeps a spreadsheet, but I cheat even more. I never have sames starting with the same letter in one book, but I do reuse the same starting letter from book to book. For example, my heroines nearly always begin with an "S." Sienna in Blue Ridge Fear & Subena in Forbidden Magic. Maybe someday I'll have so many books I'll have a problem, but I think I have a few years .

Great blog.

Susan Whitfield said...

Linda, super blog post. I have always used a spreadsheet for characters' names, occupations, locations,etc. but I do character sketches on a form I found that includes a description and personalities plus strengths and flaws. What I've had a problem with in my latest WIP is the timeline. I'm going to borrow your idea. Thanks for helping those of us less organized. I look forward to reading your next book.

Anita Page said...

Linda, I've also gotten into trouble with characters' names. Keeping track is a great idea.

As for events, I use a giant poster board with sticky notes for the main action in each chapter. Like you, I create this as I write. I color code the notes with highlighters to keep track of the various plot lines. Very low tech, but I need something I can put my hands on.

Polly said...

Great post, Linda. I have one book where the hero's name is Luke, and the heroine's mother's name is Lucy. I tried to change Lucy's name, really I did, but I couldn't. She was stuck in my head as Lucy, and I couldn't get her out. She was Lucy, he was Luke, and that's the way it stayed. I knew it might be confusing for some people--I hope not--but so be it.

Paws with Iona said...

As much as I don't like spreadsheets you have me convinced! You hit the nail on the head about characters that have similar names- I get confused. And that is annoying enough that if it happens more than once in a book, I'm apt to just close it until I have time to do a chart, which is of course not happening. Thanks for a great blog.

Linda Lovely said...

Sounds like I hit on a common problem--with multiple solutions. I tried using cards eons ago but they got buried under the clutter. My electronic solutions don't collect dust--literally.

Denise Verrico said...

Great idea. I'm very picky about character names. I like to know the meaning of the name before I assign it. I use baby name sites for ideas. You can find any ethnicity. I needed to find names from India for one of my books and found these sites very helpful.

LJ Garland said...

I've had similar issues. I use the baby name sites and surname sites online to help choose character names. Sometimes, the right name just doesn't pop into my head. Also, I've met people with unique names that I keep on a list of possible character names. Great blog. :)

Betty Gordon said...

I do the same thing, Linda, on a steno pad. The pad is full of info about the manuscript by the time it's finished and goes into the file.

Judith Ashley said...


While I've steered away from Excel for decades, you've made a good point (as have the commenters) that maybe I want to take another look at it.

Right now I have One Note which I started using but didn't keep up; 7pages of notes regarding time lines for the seven book series; and small (2 X 3) cards with descriptions (physical, characteristics, etc). At least it all surrounds my computer!

Maybe, just maybe this will make it all easier - of course, the magic computer elves are nowhere in sight to put it all on the spreadsheet!

Helen Henderson said...

You sure hit on a hot topic. Good choice.

In my presentations on creating a novel notebook I provide several different type of forms to help build a character. But suggest they are only used for the main two or three.

For all the spear carriers, a spreadsheet,with four columns: Character Name, Physical Appearance Traits, and Personal Notes/History. Since I write fantasy, traits is often used for choice of weapon.

An additional column, Appears In, is used on various projects. However it took to much time to keep track of during the writing process and after the book was done wasn't needed.

I switched to a simpler solution- under personal history note the chapter he appears, and is killed. And if they do something really special, that chapter.

A tip to naming: if you can't avoid multiple characters whose names begin with the same letter, select ones that have different number of syllables. Sim and Siarad won't get mixed up, just don't use them in the same chapters.

I always end my talks with, whatever system you use today may not work for tomorrow. Whatever works, just keep writing.

Helen Henderson
Stories that take you to the stars, the Old West, or worlds of imagination. The journey begins at and Burst Books.