Character mapping is a technique I use on every project I write. These simple flow charts keep track of all the interconnected relationships in my books and help me build more complexity into those relationships. I love including lots of secondary characters. Out of personal necessity, I developed a quick method for making character maps.
1. Establish what type of map you need. Each project requires it’s own criteria. A mystery project might need a map to track the clues each character reveals. If your protagonist is constantly meeting new characters, you might need to keep track of where, when and how they met each character. That way you don’t accidentally included a character in an earlier scene than you should have. If you’re writing family saga or a series with lots of romantic entanglements, you might want to track which characters like, hate, date or have sex with other characters.
2. Using your character sheets (or whatever method you favor for fleshing out your characters), make out a 3X5 card with the name of every character. If they don’t have a name yet, use the character’s title. Include one or two sentences of information about each of the characters on the back as needed. Don’t get crazy, you just want to jog your memory. If you have an image for character reference, feel free to stick a small photo on the card as a visual cue.
3. Alphabetize the cards. It’s an extra step, but it helps you find mistakes, like including too many similar sounding names. Also, I like to key each card with having a positive, neutral or negative stance in the protagonist’s life. I will indicate if the relationship changes over time.
(Negative > Neutral, or Positive > Negative, etc)
You can code for male or female, old or young, alive or undead. Whatever traits you need to keep track of for your story.
4. With a huge open space in front of you (I like to do this on a dry erase board and you’ll see why in a moment), place the cards for the main protagonist and main antagonist in the middle. Slowly start to fan the other cards around the first two cards. I have a basic structure I follow. The parents or mentors at the top. Siblings, love interest or partners in crime at the sides. Children, BFFs, frenemies, evil minions and other secondary characters go below. The minor characters go to the outer edges wherever they fit.
5. Here is where the dry erase board comes in handy. Carefully create the web of connections around the characters. I like to use different colors to signify each relationship status, like my first example does. If you are not using a board, you will need to do this with more cards. Since you have already established the kind of board you need, make sure your web reflects your needs. For example, in a romance novel the web might reflect the role each character plays in thwarting or promoting the protagonist’s HEA.
6. Evaluate your pattern. This is when you start to notice mistakes in the big picture. Everyone shouldn’t love the protagonist, it’s not realistic. You need to give the protagonist some detractors. Also you may notice a deficit in your antagonist’s network. Evil seldom works alone. Adjust your characters and their relationships if you find any defects. Once you have the web the way you want it, transfer the information to a permanent source. You can transfer everything to a flowchart program, or just attach the cards to a cork board for your wall.
Once you have a perfect character map in place, you can refer back to it as you write. A good map minimized continuity mistakes, and makes the final editing process go faster. Don’t forget to update your chart as your charters evolve and change.