Do you create a character bible or character style sheet when writing your story? As an editor, I find these invaluable and create one myself if I don’t get it from the client. More than a few times, creating one has shown me duplicated names or inconsistencies in the story. You may want to create one as a writing tool, especially if you are writing a series.
Here’s a few things you can include on a character style sheet:
Names, obviously. Sometimes, authors use the same name for two characters without realizing it (maybe one is a minor character, who only appears once or twice). Similar-sounding names also can be tricky. I’ve found reviewers who have chastised writers for using sound-alikes: Bibi, Bobby, Bonnie, and Beca in one book, and Braddock, Brewer, Breyer, and Butler in another book. For the reader, who has to memorize all these new names as they enter your fictional world, this can be confusing.
Their bio. Here, you may want to note the characters’ backgrounds and ages. Maybe the description doesn’t even get into the finished manuscript, but it will inform how you portray this character. Include where they were born, siblings, pets, jobs, and how they are related to the other characters.
Physical characteristics. You don’t want a character who has blue eyes on page 3 to suddenly have brown eyes on page 123. Noting the physical description helps. Some of my clients have added photos of actors to illustrate what their character looks like—almost like you would do if pitching a film.
What they wear. The sketch included here is from books by client Jillian Wiseman-Bald, who has written a wonderful historical fiction trilogy. She had an artist, Jeff Meyer, complete the sketches and she uses them in a character list included in the books. The character list she provided was incredibly helpful when it came to this series, but I also loved looking at the sketches, which depict how the different classes dressed. A piece of clothing can also be an important thread throughout a series—Sue Grafton’s protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, is not one to dress up and owns only one all-purpose, wrinkle-proof black dress, which was used to great effect throughout the series.
One of my copyediting students noticed that in a published book a character was suddenly wearing different clothes in the same scene, without any mention of a clothing change. So you may want to make note of this as well.
What they eat. Is your character a gourmet home cook, like Robert Parker’s Spenser? Or do they only have time to drive through the fast-food lane? Do your characters often meet over chicken fried steak at a neighborhood restaurant?
Character goals, wants, and fears. This is important for the main characters, as their narrative arc usually drives most stories.
This may seem like a lot of work, but you’ll be happy you did this, especially if you’re writing a series. You don’t want to mess up and say your protagonist has a dog named Fido when she really has a cat named Fluffy.
And, if you’re writing a longer book, these can be condensed into character lists for your readers. They’ll thank you, too!
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.