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Red Hair, Black Hair, Blond Hair, Squirrel!

February 15, 2013

It would seem that one of my characters had a dye-job between books. While reading through the finished portions of Stone of Power¸ I discovered that one of my characters had changed hair color and another managed to change the spelling of her name. How rude! As authors of serial fiction, what can we do to keep the details straight? In this post, I’ll look at the best way I know to ward off dye-jobs.

A character sketch is not only a good idea; it’s a necessity when writing consistent descriptions and actions. This becomes extremely important and helpful when producing a series of books inhabited by reoccurring character. Memory is a fickle thing, and it is easy to forget that your character is a blond bombshell, especially if, like me, you are attracted to redheads! So, what is a character sketch?

Each of your characters needs to have their own file with a complete description and biography. This is easy to do with a computer, but it’s also a good excuse to buy that really cool leather journal with the embossed dragon, hand-sewn pages, and braided leather bookmark. The information can easily be referenced as you write future scenes or books and allows you to keep the details straight.

As authors, we love e-mails from fans, but not when they write to bust our chops because their favorite character’s hair-color has changed. If a sword-fight in book one added a scar to your heroes face, go back and add it to the sketch, or you will forget and comment on the beauty of her pale, flawless skin. We don’t enjoy the e-mails that threaten our person just because you’ve inadvertently changed the spelling of a character’s complicated, hyphenated, and apostrophized name, although I wonder how confusing it can be for Z’th-ron to suddenly become Z’thron, but believe me, it matters to your fans. I’ve found that the easiest way to avoid name changes is to add the correct spelling to your word-processor’s dictionary. It will alert you when you’ve fat-fingered the wrong spelling. For hair color, you’re on your own.

A character sketch should not only contain a physical description, but it should have as complete a biography as possible. You, the author, should know everything possible about your character, or you will have them reacting in a manner that doesn’t match their personality or physical abilities. You didn’t just write a scene where your one-armed, death-dealing warrior draws two swords, did you? Really? Why was he even carrying two swords?! That will result in another, unwanted e-mail. I’ve committed the details of my main characters to memory, but sometimes I have to look up information about that guy who keeps popping in every fifteenth scene. I’m old, and they say that your memory is the first thing to . . . I forget. Oh, well.

I also include relationships in my character sketches. Luke kissed Leia because he didn’t know that she was his sister, and I’ll bet you were surprised when you heard the words, “Luke. I am your father.” Trust me, George Lucas knew. It is important to remember who is related to whom, as well as where fealty is owed. A family tree would be a good idea if there are enough relatives/kings/lords to make things confusing.

I have seen one-paragraph sketches and others that could stand as history textbooks. I’m sure that you can find a happy medium, but regardless of length, write sketches for each of your characters, no matter how insignificant. If you bothered to name them, they need a character sketch. The effort involved will pay huge dividends, especially when it’s time to follow in the footsteps of great authors like Frank Herbert and write book forty-seven of your epic trilogy.

Use the comments below to share the tips and tricks you use to avoid continuity problems with your characters.

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