How to Keep Your Characters Organized When Writing a Novel

Updated on October 11, 2019
Tara Jean Cochran profile image

I am an author with a master's in psychology who knows a thing or two about novel writing.

Organizing your ideas is the best way to keep track of all the different personalities in your story.
Organizing your ideas is the best way to keep track of all the different personalities in your story. | Source

Why Should I Organize My Characters?

Writing a story can be arduous work and organization is key to making the process as easy as can be. Some writers choose to write by hand, others by typing. Those who write by hand can use up an entire notebook on just organizing the book and all the aspects involved with it without having even having started the story! On the other hand, those who use their computer to type up their background information may get hampered down by complex graphs, too many files, and the folder you are saving it to can be a holy mess!

Having a simple one, maybe two pages sheet to organize your characters will help keep the clutter to the minimum. The following will be shown in the computer version, since having a visual impairment, handwriting anything out and reading it back is extremely difficult, not to mention my handwriting is horrific and I wouldn't be able to read it regardless. However, this method can be translated into a written method as well. This is just one of many options one can use in

This is just one of many options one can use in the organization. This is just what works best for me. You may find that the basic idea works for you with a few tweaks to fit your style of organization!

Spreadsheet Layout

Below is an image (Image 1) of a spread sheet that I traditionally use in my writing. I use Google Docs Spread Sheet option instead of the Microsoft one because I can obtain access to it anywhere I am at be it at a library, my phone, or a friend's computer.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

The colors look different than most would for my own aesthetic. I recommend, but it is not required, to use borders to separate the content of each cell (Image 2). Feel free to use any borders that fit how you would like to separate the cells. It doesn't need to be all bordered. It can be just separating the names and the other list of descriptors, leaving the main area clear of borders.

Adding Content

Now that you have the table set up how you want it, it is time to add the content. What I like to do is keep the names of the character on one line and the descriptors such as gender, age, etc. on the perpendicular line so they can cross hatch much easier with a click of one of the numbers or letters that will highlight an entire single section (Figure 3).

I currently a using the layout shown below in Figure 3, but I have flipped the labels before and I have found because I have so many listed descriptors, it is easier to scroll down the sideways to review them. They almost always are more than the characters I have listed.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

You can be as detailed as you want on the descriptors of a character in a physical sense. The more detail you add, the more options (in my experience) you have the more opportunities to use it within the story. For example, using Figure 4 below, you can get a good visual on how these characters may look in real life.Jane Doe is someone who comes off with just looking at her description, a free spirit, one not concerned about modern ideals of beauty, and that she lives a healthy life. John Doe's, on the other hand, comes off possibly materialistic, intimidating, possibly rich, and possibly passionate. Very opposite of Jane's description, and all based on their looks. Whether we like it or not, we do have first impressions based off looks, even if it is just superficial.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

A Little Extra

We have covered how you can organize the looks of the characters. You can add much more than just that in your spread sheet! Depending on what your novel is about will depend on those extras you want to add on the sheet.

For one of my stories I am working on, the majority of the scenes take place at a boarding school so details such as grade, best subject, worst subject, and best friend within the story would be on my secondary list.

You can create a separate page instead of using the same one by going to the bottom of the spread sheet and finding the tab where to the left on Google Docs, should have a (+) if you would like to keep things super separate. But for this article, I am keeping things on one.

Feel free again to be as detailed as you wish, but be aware if you get too detailed you are locking your characters down into expected responses instead of leaving some room for surprise reactions in certain circumstances. Find enough extras to add to make the character unique, but not so much it makes them a robot. Take a look at Image 4 for an example of what I am talking about.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

More Than Looks

In a story, you can always tell when the author hasn't put the time into the personality because the characters will come off wooden and won't jump off the page. Personality is absolutely important to focus on, almost more than the exterior looks of your character because it is where the characters dialogue is coming from. Not the color of their hair.

At this point, you should know how to create a new section with in your spread sheet to separate your sections. As with the "Extras", you don't want to put in so much detail that it restricts the freedom of your character and your creative thinking with how to make your character reacts to the situation. Put just enough to make your character dynamic.

In Figure 6, assume these two characters are meant to be falling in love at some point. As you can see by their personalities, they are almost polar opposite in their likes, dislikes, and so on. One thing they could find in common is that while her body type says athletic and she enjoys running, his says strong. They could potentially bond over working out. They both of clear nervous quirks, even though they are different, so they can easily be identified by the other once they are around each other. Notice there is nothing said about animals on his likes or dislikes. This allows the possibility for him to go a few directions with his interaction with animals around her. He could be indifferent to them, enjoy animals but can't have one because of his job, or be disgusted by them. This could also be a potential bonding area for them. This is where not being overly detailed can come in handy with potential interactions.

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

This was a short tutorial on using a spread sheet to organize your characters looks, personality, and extra elements to make a character pop out of the page. It has helped me stay organized in my writing and has allowed me to easily reference any details I may need in whatever I am writing in case an aspect of a personality or a look I have forgotten.

I hope this tutorial has helped you in some way to organize your writing and allows your creative mind to run free!

© 2017 Lippy Witch


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