Last time I wrote how my friend Saundra Crum Akers kept meticulous records about her characters. Very smart, Saundra, and something that would probably save a writer lots of heartache down the road.
As I have said before, I am a seat-of-the-pants writer. While I prefer that way of spontaneous writing with editing and fixing after the story is finished, I do like to think I am reformed...at least a little. This is my new method for tracking characters. I have used this method for my last two projects. I keep these notes in a seperate file. If I find myself going off track, I go to my notes and see if where I'm going is where I want to be.
First your character must have a name. In the example below, I'll use a key character from my current WIP. Tim is a recurring character in the series so I didn't introduce him as thoroughly as you might a character you've just met.
Tim Shelton—Here you intro and describe the character, physically, mentally or whatever works for you. The more details you have, the easier your work will be down the road. Caution: Don't have so many details mapped out before you start writing that you paint yourself into a corner. Notice how I introduced Tim. No physical characteristics, just who he is. I believe it's more important to know who this guy is than what color of hair he has. Other writers would do it much differently. This is just what works for me.
Tim Shelton--Works and lives with his parents on the family farm he couldn’t wait to get away from when he was young. He’s learned a lot in the last year about himself and the worthless pursuit of money that has dominated his life.
The following are questions I ask myself about each key character. The more detailed your answers, the better you will understand your characters.
What does Tim want abstractly? To find the peace he lacked his whole life. To find joy in simple things. To grow closer to God and make up for how he treated his parents.
What does he want concretely? Just getting by is okay for now. He wants to decompress from the last twenty-six years of his life.
What keeps him from reaching his goals? Joyce decides she wants him back when she sees his renewed interest in Noreen Trimble. Feels obligated to his ex-wife and family.
What will he learn? The pursuit of material gain is never worth the price. Simple pleasures are best. To love again.
Remember what John Gardner said. "Create the best possible characters and make the worst possible things happen to them."
Keep your character motivations close at hand as you put your characters through terrible tragedies and hardships. In the end, you'll know who your characters are and how they will survive the plight you've put upon them.