How do epic fantasy writers keep track of their characters?
June 20, 2011 3:39 PM   Subscribe

How do writers keep track of huge casts of characters in sprawling epic novels like Game of Thrones? Is there software for that, or do they use notecards or what?

I'm sketching out some ideas for a sci-fi story and I've got a few dozen characters at this point, and I'm already having a hard time sorting out all their relationships.. Is there some kind of software solution for this?
posted by empath to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Some authors use Scrivener.
posted by proj at 3:42 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get a large chalkboard or a dry eraser board and write a tree map of relationships among characters, that's how some of the writers do it.

If you're concerned about accidentally erasing it, get a large piece of cheap cloth, white, fleece or something, then get button velcros and write out characters on index cards, or half of an index card, and stick on the cloth board, so you can move them around, use color coded strings to indicate relationships. For example, red for family, blue for friends, black for encountered, white for conflict, etc. Hope you find it useful.
posted by icollectpurses at 3:47 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Scrivener.
posted by peripathetic at 3:49 PM on June 20, 2011

Scrivener emulates the pinboard/notecard approach; I've heard of authors who use index cards, clothes pegs and string.

(Will Self uses Post-Its. Lots of them.)
posted by holgate at 3:50 PM on June 20, 2011

For the roleplaying games I run, I have a series of files listing descriptions of NPCs, their relationships, locations, etc, and notes about details the players may not yet know. You could quite easily do the same with your work.
posted by Heretical at 3:51 PM on June 20, 2011

You might also try social network analysis software.
posted by proj at 3:52 PM on June 20, 2011

This reminds me of a story I heard Brandon Sanderson tell at a book signing once.

After he'd taken over writing the end of The Wheel of Time, he needed to know something about a minor character. He emailed Robert Jordan's assistant, who promptly emailed him back and said "this might be helpful to you." Attached to the email was a document titled "With Perrin." Said document contained every character who'd ever interacted with Perrin and how they were related to him and to one another. Additionally (and mind-blowingly, at least to me), there was similar data for another twenty characters who had not appeared in any Wheel of Time book to that point. Just in case they were ever needed.

I'm not sure if that answers your question, but something like that might be what you need?
posted by andrewcilento at 3:55 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know what else George RR Martin uses besides software, but I do know he still writes in Wordstar on a DOS (!) machine.
posted by sharkfu at 4:12 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

On the topic of Sanderson, his podcast - Writing Excuses - mentioned in one episode a program called WikidPad, a kind of desktop wiki that some of his co-hosts use. It basically lets you build your own wiki on your computer. I use it to keep track of my 365 writing project, and while it does suffer from a steep learning curve, I can see how it would be very useful. I'm not sure it's the best fit for what I'm doing, but I think it would work well for a complex book/series with an ensemble cast.
posted by MShades at 4:15 PM on June 20, 2011

Nthing Scrivener. I just started using it and I'm really impressed.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 4:28 PM on June 20, 2011

I just keep a running list, and print it out again when I add people. This is helpful when I change somebody's name later. I can strike out the original (so I can see it, for revision purposes) and put the new one beside it. And with a list, I can see if I have accidentally given everyone names that start with R and end with Y.
posted by headspace at 4:41 PM on June 20, 2011

I use Mindmeister a lot when outlining interconnected ideas.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:22 PM on June 20, 2011

As for Game of Thrones specifically, there was an article in The New Yorker recently that touched on this (and is now unpaywalled). Basically, it sounds like G.R.R.M.'s difficulty with this problem is part of the reason it has taken him so long to finish the remaining volumes in the series. One of the many awesome things about this article is the part where it describes how G.R.R.M leans on his own psycho fandom when he loses track of details:
Elio García estimates that he spends up to thirty-five hours a month supervising, the “Song of Ice and Fire” discussion site. García, a Cuban-American, moved to Sweden to be with his girlfriend in 1999, the same year that the two of them established She had introduced him to Martin’s series, and he soon shared her obsession with it. The site now has about seventeen thousand registered members. Despite his attachment to the books, García did not get to meet Martin or his fellow-fans until 2005. “I never really did the whole convention thing,” he told me. “I consider a lot of these people friends. But they’re not physical, next-door-neighbor friends. They are people I know on the Internet.”

García is a superfan. His knowledge of Martin’s invented world is so encyclopedic that the author has referred HBO researchers to him when they have questions regarding the production of “Game of Thrones.” Although García’s participation in is voluntary, his involvement with Martin’s work has become semi-professional. He is being paid to consult with licensors creating tie-in merchandise and to write text for a video game based on the series. He and Martin are collaborating on a comprehensive guide to the books, “The World of Ice and Fire.” Martin himself sometimes checks with García when he’s not sure he’s got a detail right. Martin told me, “I’ll write something and e-mail him to ask, ‘Did I ever mention this before?’ And he writes me right back: ‘Yes, on page 17 of Book Four.’ [emphasis mine]”
posted by jeb at 5:52 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire in particular, there are fairly comprehensive hierarchical indices of characters (organized by Great House) included at the back of every book in the series. My interpretation of these character lists is that they're a condensed, cleaned-up version of GRRM's own reference notes. Could be wrong, though.
posted by killdevil at 6:33 PM on June 20, 2011

I worked with an author who mapped out a family tree that spanned several generations and half a dozen books in Excel. She included a bit of biographical data about the character and also pasted in both a cover of the book in which they were featured and a photo of who she thought they looked like. Brad Pitt was represented three times.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:11 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just use a flowchart.
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:19 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Martin's not the only writer who depends on fans. Before the legal issues, J.K. Rowling said on her website when giving the HP Lexicon a Fan Site Award:
This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an internet café while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing). A website for the dangerously obsessive; my natural home.
posted by clerestory at 11:04 PM on June 20, 2011

I imagine that experimentation is your friend. Personally, I'd probably just make up charts on sheets of 11x17, or maybe make haphazard, unorganized notes in a notebook.

Unless I'm mistaken (I'm not fluent with all the new features in the latest version) there is nothing Scrivener has to offer that is specifically designed for this purpose. It is an excellent, flexible piece of software, though, and I'm sure you could bend it to suit your needs.

On the other hand, you could also just make notes in Notepad. Experiment! Your story is the most important thing - you can clean up the details of who's married to whom later.
posted by TangoCharlie at 12:06 AM on June 21, 2011

I find VoodooPad helpful. It's a personal wiki program, very easy to learn and use, and you can link things together however you need.
posted by Georgina at 3:04 AM on June 21, 2011

This sounds like a job for Storyspace.
posted by tel3path at 6:56 AM on June 21, 2011

I think this NY Times article is on point. It's about authors using various software programs to manage their characters, plots, etc.
posted by crLLC at 7:27 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I remember reading about one of the producers of "Lost" have a big Excel spreadsheet he used to track all the crazy story lines and character relationships.
posted by Blake at 7:42 AM on June 21, 2011

So perhaps Excel isn't the tool you're looking for...

Tinderbox is by the same company as Storyspace, and has been used to write novels.
posted by mecran01 at 3:58 PM on June 21, 2011

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