Developing Characters with a CharList

CharList 1

In a December 2015 post, author Mary Carroll Moore blogged about Elizabeth George’s character list technique for character development.

Character Lists, for Elizabeth George, are basically stream-of-conscious notes taken on a character, arriving at many pages worth of notes. I have been using the same technique for years, but never called it anything. In fact,with the addition of an e-notes taker, I have the best of both worlds for what I now call “CharLists”.


I create Charlists for all my major characters. I use a couple of e-note takers to ensure all the notes are kept together for each character also.

CharList 1

I use Evernote predominantly, creating a notebook for each major character, in which I file all the charlist notes. Once an area is fully worked out, I transfer those notes onto one big note in OneNote. (OneNote lets me create columns in a note, better formatting and print to PDF).

Evernote – is available on all my devices, and I run with an inbox system which is downloaded and synchronised automatically. This means that when I get a sudden idea when I’m out and about, I can simply add it into a new note in my inbox, then move to the relevant notebook and/or note in Evernote at a later time. There are also mobile apps like Draft which lets you append a current note quite easily.

As an Evernote premium customer, I download some of my notebooks offline onto my mobile devices. Aside from my “Inbox” notebook, I also make sure that offline I have access to the most important of character notebooks, and some setting and overall plotting notebooks for my WIP.

There’s nothing much new about creating and describing a character in this way here. And the example given isn’t really a list. Despite the name of character “list” I believe the real benefit from this technique of development is in spending time just sitting and writing out anything that comes to mind for the character. Not following prompts or a questionnaire – those personally bore me as they are too formulaic for my own mind. The key is in spending time, and seeing where it takes you.

In taking some screenshots of a character’s notes for this post, I had an eiphany and it has really started to firm up my character: Stewart (temporary name, I think) is a secondary main character. He’s an older teen at this point in time, and for the first couple of books, has a background role. But in working with Stewart’s notes again, I suddenly felt the need to give him flying lessons and a possible future career which fits his personality to a “T”.

    Top - Charlist Notebook for Stewart in Evernote, showing different notes. On the right is the open note (Stewart's colour palettes) Middle - Another note open, this time the Deets (details)  Bottom - screenshot from OneNote notebook for Stewart. This note is the brand new Flying Lessons details I just made up. Combined thought text and copy/paste web research. Top – Charlist Notebook for Stewart in Evernote, showing different notes. On the right is the open note (Stewart’s colour palettes)
    Middle – Another note open, this time the Deets (details)
    Bottom – screenshot from OneNote notebook for Stewart. This note is the brand new Flying Lessons details I just made up. Combined thought text and copy/paste web research.

Note that I have some standard types of charlist notes for my major players in a story. These I develop with research and some time spent randomly exploring ideas, but eventually I build a better understanding of the character areas important to me. My standard note types you may see in the screenshots above. These are –

  • Envoking (character name) – I select colour palettes to represent the character (style and internally). Stewart is kind of citrusy/beachy – he’s an outdoor type of person who loves the beach. And yes, he surfs. Now, I’ve just thought of that! [writes another note…]
  • Deets (stupid name for details) – anything goes in here, like external what-they-look like bullet points, to sentences describing hobbies or ways they go about things.
  • Images (because I’m a visual person and enjoy looking for just the right face-claim or image to fit how I see the character)
  • Timeline (Backstory timeline and events timeline as story progresses). I stick in any events I think of which the character is involved in, or impacted by. Dates and times, and occasionally if I work it out, a checkin of how old the character is at that time. I cross-match with other characters.
  • Personality Profiles / Archetypes etc – I try to place the character into Myers-Briggs, Enneagram and other Archetypal systems. This is easier for a secondary character. I’m still working over my main protagonist, as there’s no full fit on one of these personality types. But for Stewart, locating a Myers-Briggs gave me a good base for the faults and needs of his type. From there, my charlists build on. I take a copy of the personality type I think works (I keep a database of traits and details for all the personality- and arche-types) and then write in new notes and thoughts on top as he develops.

Other types of notes which may make their way into character notebooks as charlists are –

  • Character Interviews or Chats – where I interview my own character (or sometimes they take over and interview me)
  • Answers to character questionnaires or prompts
  • Specific Motifs, Symbols or Objects – sometimes a character may be related to an object, say a bird or animal – which I’ll then research and take some images and information for.
  • Relationships – I often plot out character relationships, particularly where there’s a family or workplace involved.
  • Future thoughts – future storylines for that character.
  • Style Guide – if the images I’ve found don’t quite fit the character’s style, I may describe it, or find outfits which indicate style.
  • and many more…

What tools do you use to hold your character development notes? I still know of writers who maintain and get the best inspiration in using physical notebooks or ringbinder systems, whereas I’ve used electronic notebooks like Evernote for a decade now. Whether physical or digital, I believe the best benefit comes from simply spending time in whatever system you use. In doing so today, I came up with two new ideas to round out Stewart.

Using Face Shapes and Physiognomy for Character Development [Resource Links]

Physiognomy header

If the previous post on using tarot for character development appeared right-of-center for you, this one appears it for me. Previously dismissive of the field of Physiognomy, I was happy to find that the possible archetypes and personality analysis associated to facial features are worth understanding.

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Using Tarot for Writing Inspiration [Resource Links]

Tarot Header

Writers have always used all sorts of random generating tools to prompt and help develop their writing. Popular choices include the random story making dice or cubes available, the many writing prompt books and posts, or using images for inspiration.

Tarot Card Decks provide some very beautiful images (with meaning) as inspiration for both plot and characters. In fact, proper tarot decks are organised into archetypal groupings which can be helpful for character development. This post features some of the best resource links out there for using the Tarot for writing inspiration.

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The Tilt between Plot and Character

kmweiland1-plot vs character

I used to be a big plotter. I spent many days if not weeks on developing plot before “going in”. This year I’ve noticed a change in my writing process, with character development taking a turn at the forefront.

Provided it ends up balanced, I’m happy with the shift. December brings a discovery of my own tilt between the two, shifting the scales of my own writing processes.

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