Keeping Track of Characters — by Pat Bertram

LBI don’t usually do character profiles before writing a novel except to decide on basic information — gender, a couple of physical traits and maybe general idea of personality type. I prefer to let the needs of the story dictate who the character is. I mean, if I have created a caring, nurturing character, and the story demands a wisecracking sharpshooter, then the story starts out with problems from the beginning. (Unless, of course, the wisecracking hides a caring, nurturing side of the character, which could make for an interesting character, though I’m sure it’s been done thousands of times before.)

Each book has its own demands, and Light Bringer had more demands than most. It was the only book I did a storyboard for. Halfway through, I got lost in all the points of view, the various stories that needed to be intertwined, the special needs of the novel, so I wrote a brief description of each scene on a card and played with them, dealing them out in various arrangements until I found the best way to fit all the pieces together.

Light Bringer was also the only book I did a character chart for. The story was based on both modern and ancient conspiracy theories (though ancient conspiracy theories fall under the category of “myth”). Instead of having one erudite character lecture a clueless character on the theories, I created a discussion group where each character believed and vociferously defended his or her pet theory. One unexpected benefit of the group was that I had ready-made pool of characters to draw from for bit parts.

Group dialogue causes problems for readers in that it’s hard sometimes to keep track of who is talking and what their purpose is in the story. It’s also hard for writers to keep track, so I made a chart of all the characters, their beliefs, style, food needs, and various other aspects to make sure that each was different.

For example, Scott Newman, a retired banker, believed that the international bankers were controlling the world to gain total wealth and power. He was lean, sharp-featured, contemptuous, didn’t eat “corporate foods” (things like chips and frozen dinners that were created by corporations) because as a loan officer, he’d already done enough to further the aims of the international bankers.

Faye Pozinski was almost his direct opposite. She believed that the British oligarchy (London bankers, the London School of Economics, the Fabian Society, the Rhodes Round Table) were controlling the world to create a neoBritish empire ruled by a theocratic world king. An ample woman in her fifties still working as a grocery clerk, Faye was hearty with a braying voice, a vegetarian, and delighted in wearing wildly colored clothes.

And then there was Chester, a wizened, jeans-wearing diabetic fruit grower who overdramatized everything. He’d once seen a UFO above his orchard, and he believes we are ripe for an alien takeover because he’s convinced these otherworldly creatures want to keep us from blowing up the earth.

These are only three of my discussion group characters but you can see why I needed a chart. So much to keep track of!


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”


Filed under books, Pat Bertram, writing

10 responses to “Keeping Track of Characters — by Pat Bertram

  1. Interesting way to create complex and distinctive characters. I had a discussion group in my first book, though the purpose was different, and none of the characters played much of a role outside the group. My challenge was to distinguish their voices from each other during the group meetings. It was tough!

    • Distinguishing voices is always difficult. In another book, Daughter Am I, my hero traveled around the country with a bus load of senior citizens — ex-cons, ex-con men, and various other characters of dubious reputation. I gave each a distinctive way of talking along with a distinctive prop, so that readers didn’t get lost in the crowd.

  2. I’ve yet to write a novel with the complexity of characters in Light Bringer, Pat. Your post reminds me of something someone told me many years ago: Take your characters to dinner. It’s a good way to get to know them.

    I tend to start my novels with a concept and let the story come to me. In my latest novel, A World Without Music, the central theme didn’t come to me until I was maybe six chapters into the manuscript. When it did it was a huge discovery for me and, after I finished the first draft, required some sizable revisions to those early chapters. But the finished product was very rewarding.

    Thanks for sharing your process. I always find it fascinating to learn how other writers work.

    • When people ask for advice about starting a novel, I always tell them just to jump in. Don’t look for the perfect beginning except as a launching pad for the story, because what happened to you happens to many of us. We learn so much during the months or years it takes to write a novel, that often those first chapters don’t reflect the true story.

      I also like finding out how other writers write. We all do it differently, well, except for the part about stringing words together to create a story.

  3. dellanioakes

    I love to let characters grow out of my imagination, but I can see the need for keeping very careful track of these! When I have a “cast of thousands” like that, I keep notes on them as well. Usually, I only make note of the main characters or major support characters. However, a story I’m currently working on, I have a cluster of characters, all of whom have distinct personalities. I didn’t want to lose track of them, so I wrote notes on hair & eye color, basic personality traits as well as their names and relative ages. There are 11 of them (I think) plus the 2 main characters — OH MY!

    • Oh, my is right! Generally I hate books with a cast of thousands, which is why I find it astonishing that two of my books had such an assortment of characters. I have a hunch any writing I do from now on will be centered around a single character.

      Best of luck with your thirteen.

  4. I kind of pay attention to what I call character prototypes in good fiction. Scrooge, e.g., is the prototypical miser. Robert Parker’s Spenser character is the prototypical hard-boild private eye. There are prototypical femme fatales, hookers with hearts of gold, strong, silent types, etc., etc. How do the authors develop these characters? How are they subtly different than the other characters that populate a given work?

    • Archetypes– what you call prototypes — are a powerful tool for authors because such characters connect with the deepest parts of our psyches. Authors can change the characters and their personalities to fit a given story, but whether gangster or wizard, hit man or Darth Vader, the archetypes — and the power of the archetypes — are the same. These characters are sublty different than other characters in the way they connect with the reader, in the depth of connection the reader feels with the character.

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