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.
17 thoughts on “6 Easy Steps to Great Character Mapping”
This is an amazing article! As a newbie to writing I found this very helpful since I prefer visuals when doing any sort of outline.
Just curious since I plan to write a mystery story, would you mind delving deeper into how you’d use the visual to map out clues?
For a relationship map for a series, how do you handle changes between character and noting them on the map itself (ex. Character A and character B are friends in the beginning. But as the series progresses, they stop being friends, become friends again, and in the end become enemies BUT that’s not something you know in the beginning).
Once again thanks for this article and I look forward to your response!
Wow this is a great article! I definitely plan on implementing this!
Just curious, when you have mapping your characters’ relationships out, are you thinking of where the relationship current stands or where you want it to be? If there is a change in the relationship (at the end of the story), do you map that or its just something you keep in mind?
In fact, I just picked out a spot for the dry erase board. Just in case someone might come along and erases it, I’ll take an occasional photograph of it as it grows. LOL
This is a much getter idea than filling out a sheet that feels like a job application—that is the only other characterization method I’ve seen to keep track of a character, and I think I’m going to use this with my current project, a five-part series for the SF/Fantasy genre.
I like the idea of showing the connections between characters.
Thank you, I’m happy to hear my method appeals to you. I like worksheets for keeping track of details, but for me characters are about relationships. And that’s a pretty hard thing to keep track of (at least for me) unless I create a map. With a five-part fantasy novel (a genre that tends to be character heavy) you should start to notice the difference right away. I lost a few of my earliest maps, my kids love to use my boards for games and drawing. Taking photos or creating a permanent record really helps. Good luck with the mapping.
I’m also a very visual person so this is a great way of looking at characters . I actually use Scrivener to write my novels, and a lot of that work would be kept electronically with that. I think the same software company (literature&plate) also do a mapping software called Scapple??. But sometimes, pen & paper is the best way to go about it.
Glad you liked the post. I’ve visual too, so seeing my notes on a board helps me keep complicated facts and relationships clear. Thanks for stopping by.
I write detective/crime novels. About half way through my first one, I had to develop a map to track my characters, vehicles, timelines and even dates, as I wrote in present and past tense. Once I went back through the book on edit, found several mistakes where I had questionable dates or timelines, mentioned a character that had not yet been introduced, and several very small items that I would have otherwise missed.
I use a spreadsheet with headings for critical items. I map as I write, start with very general information, then add to it each time I edit.
I’m a very visual person. I need to surround myself with maps and photos when I write. When I start a new project I always create a binder and start loading it full of all my research notes. When I do start to organize the data on my computer I use a management program called Trello. I find it works better for me than a spreadsheet. It’s always interesting to hear how other writes keep track of their data. Thanks for sharing.
Great information. I’m doing a series, and each book is short enough that I don’t need a map, but I can see it could be useful to keep track of overlapping relationships in previous books so that the overall series is consistent. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Beth, This will work perfectly for your series. I’m go glad the post is going to be useful. Thanks for dropping in. Robin
Fantastic breakdown! I love the steps. I’ve never been able to make a character map because I didn’t know how. I’m definitely going to try this now! 🙂
Alex Hurst, A Fantasy Author in Kyoto
A-Z Blogging in April Participant
It easier to do one than you might think. Do it this way the first few times and once you get comfortable with the steps you should be able to do it right into a flow chart program. Let me know how it works out for you.
I see you have your A – Z participant tag up. Can’t wait to see what you’re doing. : ) It’s going to be a fun month of blogging. Robin
It is so interesting to see how other writers process information and ‘live’ their narratives. The flow chart is an anathema to me, as are maps, in whatever format presented; reversing my car; interpreting street signs and where the arrows for the toilets are actually pointing to. So far, the only schematic I have ever truly understood is the London tube map. It is beyond excellent.
It’s so true, every writer does things a bit differently. But sometimes it can be fun to give new things a try.
I happen to love charts, maps and any form of visual organizing tool. My memory works best when I’m remembering patterns and shapes. But to each his/her own. Writing is so personal, we all need to find what works best for us. Thanks for stopping by. Robin