Developing Characters with a CharList

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.

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