Writing Tip: Understanding your characters
Updated: Jun 22
When you’re finally ready to go back in and edit, it can be hard to know where to start. It never hurts to begin by tracking how often your characters appear in your novel.
Taking one character at a time, place their name in the search bar of your document. I would start with a character whose name never changes (no nicknames or titles).
Start by tracking the character visually based on how many times their name is highlighted. Are they in every chapter? Should they be? Do you mention them frequently in the beginning but then they get dropped halfway through?
Next, open up another document and start jotting a few lines about each scene this character is in and any conflict that emerges because of it. This will begin to show you their character arc and the way they are interacting with the plot.
Count how many times this character is mentioned.
Start by taking these three steps for all your major characters, then move on to your minor characters.
Now, notice trends. Are your major characters mentioned significantly more than your minor characters? Does the point of view (POV) hinge on your major characters without getting pulled away? Is the central conflict focused on your main character or are the subplots of the minor characters changing the direction of your story? Are there narrative summaries about your characters? Are they needed?
Start to unpack your characters’ stories. Who is essential to your plot? Who could you get rid of without derailing your story? Who is in there because you love them but they aren’t needed? Which two characters could become one and still tell the same story?
Finally, do you like your characters? Have you given your readers enough reason to care?
I have done character timelines every few drafts for Dance With Me. With significant editing, I end up rearranging scenes, strengthening character development, and cutting unnecessary paragraphs. This often leaves me with incomplete character arcs which I only realize when taking the steps mentioned above.
You can write out your timeline on a piece of paper or you can add all your characters to an Excel Spreadsheet. I have both for different reasons. Sometimes, I just need to physically see how the characters are interacting, and for that I need pen and paper. Other times, I need it all in one place where I can easily search and find what I’m looking for, and for that, a spreadsheet is ideal.
No matter how you tackle the challenge, character timelines will give you a better sense of your characters and how your story is being told.