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Relief for the Terminally Forgetful


Text and drawing copyright © 1994-2013
(and, yes, you may giggle at the archaic spellings of computer terminology :)
by Kim D. Headlee


Bundled with the usual assortment of bills, sale flyers and other postal junk is your favorite monthly writers' rag. Across the cover blares the tease: "Famous Editor Reveals Top Ten Slips of Authors' Pens."

"This ought to be great," you chortle as you flip to the article. After all, no one takes as much care to ensure correctness of detail as you do. And some blunders can be awfully funny. Like the blonde bombshell who suddenly (and without a trip to her hairdresser) becomes a ravishing redhead.

Verily, gentle writer, pride goes before a fall.

Ms. Famous Editor turns out to be someone who had rejected your romance novel last year. Curiosity flares as you scan her list of boo-boos. Slip #3 looks especially interesting: "The Amazing Mutating Dog." Being an avid animal-lover, you skip to that paragraph.

And nearly drop the magazine.

For the Amazing Mutating Dog is a heroine's cuddly pet Cocker Spaniel which, during a poignant lakeside reunion of the hero and heroine near the end of the book, magically transforms into a majestic Afghan hound.

"It can't be!" you shout to the deaf walls.

Your pulse races as you grab your manuscript and turn to the passage in question. And in Chapter 24, precisely where you put them, the words "majestic Afghan hound" dance mockingly across the page.

Tendrils of despair curl around your heart. "How," you wail, "could I have been so blind? What other errors lurk between the lines? Can I ever show my face in my writers' group again?"

Stash the sackcloth and ashes, my friend. All is not lost. You just need to set up a system to record your characters' vital statistics (vitae, for short).

So, now you're supposed to toddle to your favorite office supply store, load up on index cards and file boxes, tote the mess home, and start scribbling away, right?


Even the most seasoned construction foreman needs a blueprint. You must first exercise your gray cells regarding not only the information you wish to record, but how it's going to be used. Therein lies the trick to designing an effective system.

Don't start reaching for that sackcloth just yet; this type of analysis is not as difficult as you may believe.

Certain data about your characters are going to be the same whether the book is a contemporary mainstream novel or a time-travel fantasy: name, nickname, date and place of birth, sex, height, weight, hair and eye color, occupation, and outstanding personality traits, to name a few. I also recommend setting aside several lines for recording brief comments about each character. For me, this serves as a wonderful memory-jogger for important events yet to be written.

If your project is a family saga spanning several generations and volumes, you may want to include parents' and spouse's names, date and place of death, and the volume(s) in which the character appears.

Writers of science fiction and fantasy may need places to indicate a character's species, planet of origin, moral alignment (good, evil, neutral), skill level or rank, preferred weapon, etc. If animals are closely associated with any of the characters, as with Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders, a notation of the animal's name can be handy, especially if several animal names are agonizingly similar.

And the list goes on. The possibilities are corralled only by your imagination.

The point is you need to establish a scheme that works for you. Once you have sweated through the design and initial setup, and have disciplined yourself to update the information on a regular basis, you will not be disappointed. Have you been stung by an editor's offhand remark about all your characters seeming to be tall, blonde and blue-eyed? Just query your note cards.

At the very least, each search will yield a more intimate understanding of your characters -- which cannot be a bad happenstance in anyone's estimation.

If you possess a PC at any rung of the electronic evolutionary ladder, you stand at the threshold of an even greater opportunity. For you can create a data base to keep your characters' vitae on-line.

This is the method I use to track the more than 50 characters who romp through my multi-volume work of ancient historical fiction. And the benefits have been invaluable. My characters hail from a variety of backgrounds across Europe, so the geographically-grouped list has proven especially helpful. And their names are either Latin, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, or Arabic. Very few are simple to pronounce, let alone spell. Were it not for the artificial sanity offered by the data base I might have dumped my project long ago. (Okay, I exaggerate. But I probably would have sprouted a lot more hoary hairs by now!)

Another benefit is the convenient means for storing "dummy" characters. Forever questing for new and interesting names, I often add promising candidates to my data base without bothering to fill in any other information. Data about existing characters can be expanded and updated quite easily, without enduring the torture of rewriting index cards, or smelling like a you've just doused yourself with "Eau de Fluide Correction."

Regardless of the method you select, just imagine how much more efficient your writing process could be if your characters' vitae resided at the tips of your fingers rather than scattered at random across that vast organic data repository called your brain. No more confusing Henry Johnson with his cousin Hank. No more embarrassing changes of eye color mid-chapter. No more snide editorial comments about your manuscript having "too many" tall, blue-eyed blondes. Experience the freedom to compose without the nagging (and time-eating) compulsion to tear through earlier writings and mounds of research notes to ensure correctness of detail.

Then, the next time your favorite writers' rag runs another "Top Ten Writers' Bloopers," you can truly relax in the assurance that none will be yours.


Publication history:

Calliope, January/February 1994


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