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Tools for creating and organizing character data for a long-term series
"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature."

~Ernest Hemingway

Along with setting and plot, character is a fundamental element of storytelling. In visual media such as television and movies, a fantastic setting and interesting plot concept aren't enough to carry an audience if the characters are flat or unbelievable--resulting in poor reviews or a cancellation of future seasons. With novels, the amount of time spent in the writing process can be months or years of an author's life. Taking the time to develop a character development process that works for you is vital to maintaining a long-term project.

I started work on my first novel in late 2006 with a cast of three main characters and about a dozen secondary characters. With multiple early attempts, I got stuck around the 12,000 word mark. It was frustrating, considering I could hold together short stories in my head without a lot of preparation. I read as many novel writing guides as I could find and later began to seek out regional events where successful novelists were speaking.

Study the Stories You Personally Enjoy.

I learned this from David Baldacci during a Q&A session. He explained he got more value out of studying fiction he enjoyed--breaking down the elements of why he liked certain characters, settings, and plots--than any other method. If you're a fan of any particular genre, you will begin to pick up on character types and plot structure patterns in a very intuitive way.

Use Personality Psychology to Create Balanced Characters.

Brandon Sanderson has an excellent lecture series on YouTube. This is the link to the character session:

Flaws, internal motivations, and passions outside of your story's main plot add interest and make characters more believable. This also gives you a baseline on areas where a character can learn, grow, and change over the course of a story.

Character Templates a.k.a. Dossier Method

This is one technique that worked for me. I slowed down and took the time (about six months) to create detailed profiles of my main characters, their families, and any character who had a significant role in the first book. (I also worked on setting during the same time frame). Not all of this background information made it into the books, but I was able to use the reference material to develop sequel novels and expand the overall scope of the project.

Back in 2006, there were very few websites with template samples (there are thousands now), so I developed my own and added to it over time--the primary areas being physical characteristics, early life, significant relationships, psychology and personality, education, views and beliefs, and favorites/passions.

A major thing I learned in this process was that you don't need to have all the areas covered before you start writing--fill in enough to get a solid feel for the characters and then record anything new you learn with each book. There is a dynamic relationship between my reference materials and the books, and I find it fun.

Character Tropes

TV Tropes   has great explanations for these. (This is a rabbit hole of a topic, so I'll see you back at this post in a few hours...or days.)

Sometimes people tend to get tropes and cliches confused, and there is some carry-over when tropes are used in a lazy way. According to your genre, tropes can give you a starting point with a character that you can mold and modify. They're shortcuts to giving readers something familiar without a massive amount of description (which can be helpful for minor or supporting characters you need to establish quickly) or can also serve as a means to surprise the reader when a character isn't who they seem at the surface level.

With a Long-Running Series, You'll Grow as an Author Along with Your Characters.

Even after working on my series for twelve years (now with a cast of over seventy characters across multiple novels and short stories), I'm still learning new things. It's a process, and all of the small daily actions you take build up over time. I hope this helps give you a good start on your journey and encourages you to try different approaches whenever you find yourself stuck.

Best Wishes!

Patricia Gilliam

Sci-fi novelist Patricia Gilliam is the author of The Hannaria Series and Thaw (Kindle Worlds/Silo Saga). She is also a contributor to several science fiction anthologies. She and her husband Cory live in Knoxville, TN.

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