Character Tracking: Help, two of my characters are missing?

Where do characters go between chapters when they don’t appear in those chapters?

Are they standing just off-stage? It seems a couple of mine nipped completely out of sight (and mind) and one forgot to come back at all. Problem was they didn’t even send a post card? Or wave and say, hey, I’m still around, just not centre stage.

An astute crit buddy and reader handed back my manuscript yesterday, and calmly told me two of my characters had gone AWOL.

I hadn’t even noticed they were missing. Fortunately, they’re not going to be hard to find because, really, I know where they are. And what they’re doing. I just forgot to tell  the reader.

My mss reader attached to the missing characters. She wanted to know why the daughter never considered her absent father, whom she loved, yet gave thought to her absent mother. And why when she moved away from a significant, loved friend did she not think or mention her again?

Some characters, important to the reader, merit being given another thought or mention, even if we don’t see them appear in the story again. At least let the reader know what happened when the husband who was away at war returned to the wife we’ve met. We don’t need to go visit them, but a quick reference will satisfy the reader that things turned out or didn’t for that character.

This valuable feedback alerted me to some important considerations when working with a manuscript covering a span of years and multiple characters.

  • Out of sight – shouldn’t necessarily mean out of mind.
  • Lesser characters can be forgotten when focussing on strong characters.
  • If a character has been important to the story or main character/s, even if story moves on, a look back, thought or mention can stop them fading out or going missing.

So how do we keep track and be less careless about losing our characters. I’ll share a couple of strategies I’m going to try for this manuscript.

TIP 1: Ask what is everyone else in the story doing while your main characters and focus are elsewhere. Is it relevant? Does the reader need to know?

TIP 2: Use a style sheet to track multiple characters. Map which chapters they appear in. If they don’t get a mention in consecutive or future chapters, interrogate does it matter? Even if a character goes deliberately missing for most of the story, does anyone need ever think of that person again?

Some characters fade out and are never missed. That’s fine too. Tracking them though alerts us to whether it matters.

Have you ever lost a character? Do you think to look for them? I’d love you to share any strategies you may have for keeping track of your unruly characters’ whereabouts. Please feel free to post your comments.

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Dale" alt="Dale">


I keep a file on the computer which has all the current details of each character.

April 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm
Sheryl Gwyther" alt="Sheryl Gwyther">

Sheryl Gwyther

Great ideas, Chris. And so obvious once you’re alerted to the fact that a character is conspicious by his/her non-appearance.

I had a similar problem with one of my stories – told through the viewpoints of 4 different characters (one of them is a talking cockatiel). The only way I could sort it out was visually – a different coloured post-it note for each of them. Every chapter they featured in, I used their colour.

Then, I could see instantly when Macbeth (the bird – who is an important character) hadn’t popped his beak in for a while when he should have. 🙂

April 24, 2011 at 8:24 am
Corinne Fenton" alt="Corinne Fenton">

Corinne Fenton

Great advice Chris and very interesting to think about.

May 3, 2011 at 6:53 pm

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