Chart Your Characters’ Lives On and Off the Page

by James Preston

The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. — Sun Tzu

First, thanks for having me back.  I really enjoy these opportunities to talk about our work.

About this entry —

If you have a first draft and wonder what to do next, this is the essay for you.

If you don’t have a first draft, this is the essay for you because reading it will relieve some of the worry about your first draft not being perfect. (Hint: it probably won’t be and that’s ok.)  It will give you permission to drive on to the end.

I wanted to find a nifty segue between “Thanks” and Deconstructionism but it eluded me. Maybe I’ll find it in the revision of this essay, which leads me to what I want to talk about today.

Welcome to:

The End Of Deconstructionism

In the past I have talked about adapting screenplay structure to genre novels — Hook, Twist, Plot Point One, Midpoint, Plot Point Two, Dénouement.  And I talked about the joys of 4″ x 6″ cards, each of which has something happening.

All of that sounds very mechanical, and in a way it is. It is the craft part of what we do, similar to someone learning to run scales on their way to being a jazz pianist.  It is deconstructing the process to produce a better product, or to make producing that product easier for you.

Remember Romancing the Stone? It begins with Kathleen Turner sobbing as she types “The End.” The impression given is that she bundles the manuscript up and ships it off to her editor. Ah, don’t we all wish! For most of us it’s not quite like that. You have come up with interesting people to write about, presented them with problems that they must solve, guided them to an ending of some sort. In other words, you write a book, or at least a first draft. You get to the fabled “The End.”   Hopefully you love it, love it enough to know that it needs work before being exposed to the public.

First, stop and congratulate yourself.  Of the literally millions of people who say they want to write, only half actually start, and less than half of them finish.  Really. I can footnote that.  Congratulate yourself.

Okay, don’t get carried away with congratulations, because you are probably not done, unless you are some kind of mutant genius like Isaac Asimov who, when asked now he could write so many books, reportedly replied, “I type seventy words a minute and I never revise.” Most of us revise, some more than others.

One of my problems revising is that I tend to look at a micro view. “Gee, that sentence sounds lame,” or “That dialog is flat.”  That is only part of revising. Another important part is the macro view.

Art . . .

And craft.

For the first, you’re on your own.  For the craft part, for the macro view of your work, there are some techniques that might help the deconstruction.

One type of analysis I have found helpful is simply figuring out where all of your characters are in each chapter. Literally. Where they are and what they are doing. All the characters in each and every chapter, whether or not they appear in the chapter. In fact, this is especially important for characters who are not on-scene in the chapter.

It will tell you if you have logical flaws like Betty has to be in the casino in Chapter Three, but she is still in Los Angeles at the end of Chapter Two and there isn’t enough time for her to drive to Las Vegas. The easy way to do this is with a chart, with characters’ names along the vertical axis and chapter headings along the horizontal.

Do you begin to see how this kind of analysis reveals plot holes, particularly those of the “who knows what when” variety?

From television, a series that shall remain unnamed suffers from so many of these issues that if the actors weren’t wonderful it would be a laughingstock.  Here’s just one. A woman’s son is kidnapped; the kidnappers (who are all psycho killer nut bags and the mother knows that) call up and say, in effect, “Meet us secretly, away from the police, and you can see your son.”  She says, “Why, sure, Mr. Chock-Full-O-Nuts, I believe every word you say,” and eludes the FBI by going out the back door of a coffee shop to meet the kidnapper. The agent knows this, he is in the coffee shop when she runs. Later they track her and Mr. CFON down in a warehouse, break in the front way and and . . .  Spoiler Alert! They run out the back door!  And the FBI agent is surprised! When in the preceding chapter, er, scene, he saw her do the same thing.

Again, the writer has to keep track of who knows what when.

Here’s a sample from Chapter One of Pennies For Her Eyes, the newest Surf City Mystery.

(On the page) T. R. Macdonald is home, standing over the washing machine, folding his girlfriend’s underwear.

(On the page)  The aforementioned girlfriend is in the living room, working on her dissertation.

(Off the page)  The young skateboarder girl T. R. will have to help is at a skate park.

(On the page) The people invading T. R.’s home are on his boat dock.

(Off the page) The real villain is setting up a fake laboratory.

And so on . . .

Since Pennies For Her Eyes is my book, I had a pretty good idea of where all these folks were in Chapter One, but I still learned things about my characters doing this again. I didn’t know until I wrote this essay that my bad guy spent that evening making an empty warehouse look like a place where weapons of bioterrorism were cooked up. Creating this list, this mechanical, laborious task, gave me a wider view of the world that exists around the words on the page.

So here’s your assignment:

Take one chapter of your current WIP and complete this exercise. You already know what the on-screen characters are doing, so concentrate on those who do not show up in the chapter. I think you will find this allows you to know them better, and makes them more real, with lives beyond that which you show. I also think that, like me, in some cases you will list a character’s name and draw a blank. Think about it. Where were they? What were they doing?

Send us a comment.  I’d like to hear what you find out, and I think the readers of Writers in the Storm would, too. Good luck!

And this does mark the end, at least for now, of my thoughts on deconstructionism, the mechanical aspects of our art, in other words, the craft. Next time, no more running scales. Next time when to just roll with it or, as Stephen King once said, “Just flail away at the damn thing.” Until then.

James R. PrestonTo connect with James:

He can be reached at james@jamesrpreston.com

and on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Surf City.James or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/james.preston.50999

Upcoming appearances include March 20-23 at Left Coast Crime in Monterey, May 16 at the Huntington Beach Public library, and November 13 – 16 at Bouchercon Long Beach.

James R. Preston's Surf City Mysteries Series

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45 Responses to Chart Your Characters’ Lives On and Off the Page

  1. daphodill says:

    Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    If anyone’s ever asked me to beta read for them, they know I will annoy them to death about what the character’s motivations are. My margin notes are filled with “why?”. There is so much happening “off camera” which drives the action on the page. Knowing your characters intimately is a cornerstone to continuity. I extol the virtues of character profiles; I can’t write without them. I have tinkered around with the card system in Scrivener and found world building remains organic, now there’s more clarity. This article contains some good advice.

    • First, thanks for the reblog! Wow, you must be some editor. A mystery writer I grew up reading (getting in trouble from store owners, never my parents, for the tacky covers), names Richard Prather said once that he had. Ore words in his toes than. Ina finished Shell Scott novel. Sadly, I have lost the reference and cannot footnote that, but I remember it.

      • Why did it post that? Sometimes WordPress does odd things. First, thanks for the reblog! Wow, you must be some editor. A mystery writer I grew up reading (getting in trouble from store owners, never my parents, for the tacky covers), named Richard Prather, said once that he had more words in notes than in a finished Shell Scott novel. Sadly, I have lost the reference and cannot footnote that, but I remember it.

  2. I really like this approach. I always map out my scenes, but I rarely write what my characters are doing off on their own when they aren’t involved in the chapter. I love the idea of including this in my planning as well. Thank you for the great idea. I will try the assignment now, but I can already tell it will be a method I’ll stick with.

    • Thanks, glad you found it useful. However, the kind words do not get you off the hook for the assignment! (Didn’t know I had this mean streak, did you?) All kidding aside, when I did it for a published book, one I am happily done with, I learned things about my characters. I hope you do, too.

  3. Laura Drake says:

    James, I LOVE this! Even a pantser like me, who writes pretty clean (striving to have ‘one and done’ like Azminov) can see a benefit from your tool. Namely, the motivation for my character is the sister’s health and well-being – but she’s off-camera most of the book, in a fugue state in a mental hospital. The only way to keep the stakes high, and her as a real character, is through my protag thinking of her. It’s gonna be tough, but your lesson helped. Thank you!

    • Wow, Laura, I like it. I see possibilities, for example, even in a fugue state things happen to a patient like bathing, changing position. Would the heroine sister know about these? Maybe the hospital has given her a schedule? Interesting . . .

  4. Thanks, James. Does it count that I talk in character to write new chapters ?? And during those “conversations” my characters often talk to people I have not introduced ?? Also, in one of my WIP the character lurking in the background is a dead person🙂

    • I’ll give that a “yes, but — ” it’s great that your characters are alive enough to talk to people that you haven’t introduced. That means they are alive for you and will be for your readers. However, it can be an endless chain, the “social net,” as these new folks talk to others and so on, and if these conversations become so interesting that they slow you down, impede your progress, that’s not good. Of course, some of those characters may be so interesting they get their own stories, so some notes may be in order.
      Isn’t this stuff fun?

  5. Great concrete advice. Thanks:)

  6. Sharla Rae says:

    This is a great idea. I think it would helpful when constructing a timeline too.

    • Absolutely! It’s useful, for many of the same reasons, to lay “Day 1′” “Day 2,” over the character chart. I suggest at the second draft stage, to identify problems. I would not let the deconstructionist approach get in the way of the words, just banging out what happens next.

      • Sharla Rae says:

        James, I’m totally about the character and usually don’t even think about plot points until the 3rd chapter. At that point, I know my characters well and it’s easier to understand how they will maneuver toward my intended ending. Then, after chapter 5, I sit down for a few days and outline the rest of the book. It sometimes changes a but the logic of what has to happen doesn’t. I look forward to hearing how you go about this.

        • For me each book has started differently. The first was a casual conversation that lived somewhere in my subconscious for years, about how shallow the channel between Catalina and the coast is. The second was also a conversation, but it was two characters walking in and telling me all about their lives. I was the only person who could see them, but it’s okay because I take my meds regularly. Heh heh. All kidding aside, in all cases my stories begin with character, someone I care about. I think about the story until I have some idea of how it works, then I use 4″ x 6″ cards for many of the scenes. So, like you, I am character, then story. Thanks for asking, Sharla. Maybe at some point Writers in the Storm will offer me t he opportunity to explore this in more detail. Oooh, then I will have to articulate my process; not sure about doing that.

  7. Jenny Hansen says:

    James, I have a lot of people in my world, and this will be a fantastic exercise to get me through to THE END. Many thanks!

    • Jenny, thanks! However, I looked at your blog (which,BTW, you should all check out; it’s cool) and I feel like you would make it to The End anyway. Maybe this exercise will make it easier. My problem, reflected in the above comment, is that inbound is interesting, so much so that I sort of got carried away, and I MUST get to the end of Correction (new Surf City Mystery). Learn from my mistakes . . .

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Many thanks back, James. We have tons of fun over at More Cowbell. But short fiction and articles are SO much easier for me than book-length works. I have a very difficult time with “the end.” I like the technique you’re talking about here. I’ve already fleshed out an important scene with it.🙂

        • Glad you got that scene worked out. About shorter works, thanks for reminding me. I am committed to a novella next quarter, actually one a year for the next three years, for Stark Raving Press (see Bookxy.com/authors). The panic hasn’t really set in yet . . . Cowbell looks like it is a lot of fun; I am sending the link on to some ladies I know.

        • Jenny Hansen says:

          Awwwww! Thanks, James. You’re choosing a good week for that. It’s the “Beauty of a Woman” Blogfest this week.🙂

  8. The best tool of this sort I got from a college professor at the Uni of Iowa (huge writing program there)… Go to a craft store and buy a long roll of paper (the kind kinds use to paint on that you can tear off a “page” when they’re done and have a whole roll more to go. Then, get a couple of colored markers/pens, clear off the dining room table, and DRAW your story arcs. Where people are, when they’re together, when they go off screen and when they show up again like a scrolling 80s video game. Then you have lines to write on for what they’re doing until they shop up on the page again. I still have mine from college for my WIP. I had it tacked around my college dorm like some crazy art project. I’m about to make a new one when the WIP hits full manuscript. I think your suggestion is MUCH easier to pull off, but if you’re a visual learner… this can be priceless.

    • I like it, Nicole! You could see it all at once. I was just looking for more clutter for my office, too. All kidding aside, this is not clutter. I bet it’s interesting to look back at the chart from college. Did you finish the WIP?

  9. Orly Konig Lopez says:

    Great exercise, James. Thanks!

  10. What a great new way for a pantser to think! I find doing a detailed outline and charts etc. simply destroys my impulse to tell a story, but this is a wonderful tool for me to use in revisions, particularly since (obviously in my mind) the characters seem to do what they want to do and I am not consciously pushing them around. Thank you so much! It’ll be interesting to see where they are when they aren’t on stage.

    • Yeah! You got it, Beppie! This is for the second draft, at least for me. I agree completely that too much outlining can kill a story. Writing a novel should not be a “paint by the numbers” exercise. Um, did I date myself with that reference? Do paint by numbers kits still exist?

  11. Thanks, James. I’m writing my first novel and think this will be a big help!

    • Patricia, welcome to the club. This is one of the best blogs around for writing info, keep reading it. Above all, keep writing. I once heard James Rollins say, “I give myself permission to write crap today.” Today’s essay is about the second draft, for a reason. Okay, good luck, and type faster!

  12. Gee, my characters have a life off the page. What a concept! Thanks, James.
    -Fae

  13. alisab8 says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s easy and makes perfect sense. I’ll will definitely be applying this to my WIP.

    Meanwhile, I know exactly which unnamed TV program you were referring to. The lead is a great actor and I just keep hoping that the writing will get better.

    • ARRRRGH! Alisa, I am so busted. Yes, he is great, his character is interesting, but the people around him keep doing dumb stuff to move the plot along! Thomas Harris laid the groundwork for this story with Hannibal Lector. No stupid characters in his novels or movies! Thanks for writing, and I am glad you agree about er, “that show.”

  14. Renee Benson says:

    Great post with a great exercise! You are so right about some writers not giving their stories the reality that it needs by considering all angles even the ones not put on paper. Sometimes, too, though writers may have all of these back story and depth in their heads and forget that their readers won’t have the same knowledge, leaving gaping holes.

    In mystery novels, these holes are even more detrimental because the readers of mysteries are already on guard to look and analyze every piece of the story so these mistakes are really pretty glaring. Often times too glaring so that it distracts the reader and pulls them from this fictional world and back into their own and our reader remembers that toilets need scrubbing, or realize that the conversation going on beside them on the bus is more intriguing.

  15. Excellent comment, Renee. You are so right about mystery readers often being very analytic. In Read ‘Em And Weep, the second Surf City Mystery, a young woman shoots a casino owner. Part of it was revenge for things the owner had done, but only I was aware of her abusive father. It was in my head until the second draft when it dawned on me that nobody else had that information. Sometimes we carry these people around with us for so long that we forget we know them better than anybody else.

  16. I have seven children. I don’t have to write down where people are to keep track of them.

    (Hey, it’s not a lie if I know you won’t believe me.)

    James, this is where we see that you’re ahead of most of us on the curve. One of my two WIP takes place here and there around Galway City. As I race toward the finish line in my last dozen chapters, I am seeing how hard it is to juggle everyone’s whereabouts in my head.

    If only it would occur to me to write these things down.

    As I read your opening words, though, I had a different thought. As part of my prep work henceforth I’m going to get some of that butcher paper for drawing a pseudo-map, but I’m going to use miniatures and move them around the map. This is a very spatial concept, this “who is where?” and I want to give myself the most visceral reference possible.

    In order to produce the volume I intend to write in the next 18 months I’m going to need every mechanism I can to keep things grounded. That way my stories can go ahead and fly.

    Excited to read your books, James. My workation awaits!

    • Joel, you may very well be on to something! Visual/spatial is right. The element of time will require that you move the people around, but you could take a digital snapshot of every chapter for a record. I like this a lot.
      And thanks for the kind words; I have been called “beach noir” so they should be good for a working vacation like yours.

  17. Reblogged this on The Fanfic Assassin and commented:
    Anyone who has ever gotten a bad review from me should take a look at this because I guarantee it would probably fix the primary problem I had with your work. With one obvious and notable exception of course. *cough* An Unforgettable Pair *cough*

  18. Hey, Assassin, thanks for the comment and the reblog! I appreciate that a reviewer sees how this Second-draft work can fix issues, mostly logical. As one reader of this blog pointed out, mystery readers in particular look at logical issues. It just struck me — I wonder if that’s why so many mysteries are first-person? Easier to track? Just a thought.

    • I wouldn’t discount it. Especially considering how logic varies from one person, or character, to the next and how that logic processes the pieces of a puzzle into the final picture differently.

      The risk of a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario leading to the very point of intrigue in the novel becoming convoluted would be high.

  19. What an amazing and fun way to break down a novel! Great ideas here, for sure. I never thought I might need to know what Character X is doing when Character Y is robbing the liquor store. Fascinating! I can’t wait to employ this technique!

    • Claire, I’m so glad you like it! Thank you very much. It is interesting to think about actions outside of the storyline, and can reveal new dimensions to your characters — I almost want to call them “people” because to us they are. I hope the technique works for you, and good luck!

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  21. I have read your article about charting the lives of characters who are both on and off the page and think it is a sound idea. I have just completed (first draft) my sixth novel and thought I would try it out.
    I began with chapter 1, as suggested, and found it certainly rounds off all the characters and builds a whole believable and practical world around them, but have come up with the following problems:
    I always write with a cast of thousands – I can’t help it – comes of being born into a large family, I suspect, having 17 blood aunts and uncles and 32 cousins originally! I do manage to keep tabs on all my characters throughout the narrative. However, it takes a long time charting each one through the chapters. Also, it isn’t necessary at, say, a party when a guest moves the plot on by, perhaps, a remark, but is not heard of again.
    Secondly, in some of the chapters, the characters don’t stay in one scene but move on in time so that there are two scenarios, which doubles up the charting details. It creates a lot of work.
    So, I have come to the conclusion that I won’t do the charting on paper but will keep the concept in my head throughout so that I know where everyone is all the time. I am looking forward to getting to know them all better!
    Regards, Iris Lloyd

    • jamesr403 says:

      Hi, Mrs. Lloyd — you are right about both issues. A large number of characters can be very time-consuming to chart, and a character that only shows up for one line at a party may not be worth it. This is, of course, a judgement call, because the important thing is to write, not to chart, and it sounds like you are doing that (sixth novel, I am impressed!). My take is first, do this exercise at the second draft stage, and second, don’t overdo it. Thanks for the kind words, and keep writing!
      Best,
      James Preston
      PS and I thought I had a lot of cousins at fourteen!

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