Who The Hell Are These People? Mind-Mapping Your Story’s Characters

The Evil Order Of Wizarding Has Its Keynote Speaker

That’s either an image of me lecturing you, or me trying to zap you with evil invisible fingernail fungus rays. You decide! It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure for miscreants and deviants!

So. Blah blah blah, I’m writing a novel and you’re all along for the ride, and first thing’s first is that I want to get my so-called “mise-en-place” in order before I actually commit fingers to keyboard.

For me, the first order of business is getting the characters together.

While this is a novel that will have a lot of moving parts and fiddly bits (and thus some attention must be given to outlining a plot), for me the most significant bit of plotting and scheming is around the characters. The characters are my way into the story, and — a-durrr — they’re going to be your way into the story as well. I’ve said before that building a story is like building a house, and you need a strong foundation on which to construct. Characters, in this case, trump “plot.” You can have an interesting plot and shitty characters, and really, who cares? I’ve read books with awesome characters and questionable plots, though, and they can still keep my attention. I’d read awesome characters playing backgammon for 300 pages.

So, that’s where we begin. The characters.

Names Have Secret Power

Just like I suck at giving my projects good titles, I often suck at giving them good names. I don’t know why that is. It’s just one of those sad facts of life. “Maybe he should be called… Johnny… Sm… Smith? And his buddy is… Juh… Johnson… Suhhh? Smythe? Johnny Smith and Johnson Smythe? That’s good, right? It’s not good. Oh, god, it’s not good.” Weep, gibber, mouth around the lemniscate barrel of an over-under shotgun, paint walls with brains as my final “message” to the world.

I like having strong, compelling names for the characters though, because if a character has a wrong-feeling name, silly as it sounds it’ll gum me up. It’s like being forced to work all day in a pair of ill-fitting shoes. I know that something feels off, and it’s hard to fire on all cylinders when thing are wobbly and off-kilter.

So, first task was naming these people.

I’ve had this novel in mind for a year or so, and the cast of characters blurs and shifts, but even the constants have remained forever without good names.

And then the names all fell in place.

The names fell in place because I found a source of good names. A source in the world around me. You may not need this, because you may be good with titles and names. Me, I have to mine nuggets from my environment, which most certainly can include the Internet. Baby name websites are a good place to go when you’re trying to figure out what the fook you should name a character.

Anyway. I got the names of the known characters.

That’s not to say I won’t come up with new characters that need new names. I will. This is just me just identifying the primary cast, the known quantities. But, when those secondary players pop up either in outline or in writing, I can go back to the source of names used previously.

It felt good to get the names down, because now I feel like these characters are real. I feel like I’m walking around in comfortable shoes. I feel like it’s time to progress.

Flowcharts Are Fucking Awesome

And so I moved onto the mind-map, which is just an awesomer way of saying “flowchart.”

I don’t necessarily like to work in a word processor for this type of thing, because a word processor (or even a blank notebook page) indicates unending possibility. I don’t want that. I don’t want to go on at length about these characters. Not yet. I just want to identify them, I want to get a feel for who they are, I want to see how they loosely connect to the story. If you let me write and write and write, I’ll write a book for each. I don’t want a character bible yet. I want lean and mean. Plug-and-play — little LEGO bricks to build up and dismantle easily. The more information I write about a character, the more that feels “set in stone.” And the harder it is to go dismantle that. Sounds silly, and some of this is psychological, but it’s in part practical, too. I write 1000 words and it’s a wall-of-text. I want to pull a bit out and change it, I’ve got to sort through the noise to find the signal.

A mind-map doesn’t let you get too crazy. You work in little text bubbles — bloop, bloop, bloop — and get a lot of information down quickly. Don’t like a text bubble? Cut it with the push of a button. Prune the tree. You aren’t forced to write it in a sensible prose narrative, and you aren’t married to sticking to one axis of information. You can mind-map anything. A physical characteristic. A tic or behavior. A theme. A line of dialogue. A friend or family member. How they connect to the protag? How they die, how they come into play, how they like their goddamn oatmeal in the morning.

I won’t show you the one I did for this book (since I’m choosing to keep this under wraps), but I will show you one I mocked up (click the image to see it embiggened):

Few things I really like about the mind-mapping technique (in addition to what I noted above):

First, it’s fun as shit. It’s a goofy visual way of getting information together. It’s easy to follow, easy to look at, and fun to make. Colors! Bubbles! Tee-hee! Gigglesnort!

Second, I can make one and edit one anywhere, because I did this on my iPhone using the SimpleMind app. You aren’t beholden to that app, of course. You’re not even beholden to any app. You could accomplish this with a big sheet of paper and some fun markers. Especially if the markers smell awesome. Like chocolate and blue raspberry. Just don’t smell that black marker. They call it “licorice,” but the black marker always smells like sun-loosened road tar rubbed in a dead man’s asscrack. Nastiness.

Third, they’re easy enough to create and edit on the fly that it functions as both an “arrangement of information” and a “Zen exercise of exploring character.” Sometimes the blank page of the word processor or notebook is daunting, but for me, the mind-map flowchart thingy lets me quick tippity-type whatever elements come to the front of my head. “Obsessed with cheese.” “Rides a flying donkey.” “Afraid of his evil mother.” Whatever.

The mind-map comprises only broad-strokes, and it doesn’t get into the deeper “character stuff,” but we’ll get there. More on that as I have it. The process continues.

First I make the map, then I take the journey.

[EDIT: From the comments:]

*smacks head*

Funny, because I totally forgot one of the greatest things that happened during this particular mind-map process, and I even intimated such a thing in my faux mind-map.

I was going through the characters, and I started to see some similar elements pop up: elements of legacy, of family, of blood. And I was like, holy shit, I just figured out what this whole story’s *about.* I mean, I had the story in mind. I know a rough sequence of events for the plot. But I didn’t really have a deeper throughline.

And in the mind-map, the character’s exposed themselves (tee-hee) and showed me the theme of the piece.

Just through the act of dicking around with fun little word bubbles and connective tissue, I suddenly stumbled upon one of my great unanswered questions, a question I didn’t think I’d answer so soon.

That’s the joy of the preparation process. It’s like preliminary archaeology. You dig and dig and uncover things you never expected to find.

53 comments

  • Digging the flowchart, but I do have one question. How does it show the relationships between characters, if at all? Is this just how characters are at the start of the novel, other than the Wombat stabbing Codpeice in the back? What relationship, if any, is there between Old Man Redmansville and Dr. Hymenbreaker? Are the characters in their own little worlds at this point, or do you also use this tool (heh, tool) to show how their paths cross?

    • Josh:

      Right now, it’s just ground-level “getting all the pieces on the table” time. The mind-map there has a few suggestions of relationships (father, antag, sidekick, love interest), but that’s uncomplicated and base level stuff.

      The relationships are something I’ll track a little more robustly in an outline or in future character docs. Ultimately, though, if I know the characters at the beginning, it’ll be easier to know how they react to one another without having to note every little intimation down.

      — c.

  • I LOVE a good mind-map. I use them for everything – trying to figure out what to take on a trip? Mind Map! Trying to figure out whats for dinner? Mind Map! Trying to find an untraceable way to dispose of that annoying guy in the next cube with the really bad cold? Mind Map! And yet, I have never used them to ghost out a project. Odd, will have to try that. Mind Map! (Yes, they excite me, but they are so darn useful. I remember the first time I saw one in a technical writing class…. ah.)

      • *smacks head*

        Funny, because I totally forgot one of the greatest things that happened during this particular mind-map process, and I even intimated such a thing in my faux mind-map.

        I was going through the characters, and I started to see some similar elements pop up: elements of legacy, of family, of blood. And I was like, holy shit, I just figured out what this whole story’s *about.* I mean, I had the story in mind. I know a rough sequence of events for the plot. But I didn’t really have a deeper throughline.

        And in the mind-map, the character’s exposed themselves (tee-hee) and showed me the theme of the piece.

        Just through the act of dicking around with fun little word bubbles and connective tissue, I suddenly stumbled upon one of my great unanswered questions, a question I didn’t think I’d answer so soon.

        That’s the joy of the preparation process. It’s like preliminary archaeology. You dig and dig and uncover things you never expected to find.

        — c.

  • @Tome:

    I use FreeMind personally, and I love it.

    @Chuck: I cannot embiggen your awesome brainmap of doom. You have privatized it, and made it available only to the Hollywood elite socialists who want to share in passwords and secret user names.

  • So, when I click to “embiggen” it won’t let me see anything. It tells me it is private. I don’t have permission. It’s saying that Chuck thinks I am poo-poo.

    I’ve been using FreeMind for my pc. It’s fun.

    Maybe one day I can comment on all the hilarity. But I’ll be damned if I’ll break out a magnifying glass! I reserve that for when I am out with Watson, and you aren’t Watson.

    Well, are you?

    Are you???

  • “Shit!” She said as the last book hit the ground. “Who put these fucking marbles on the ground? Damnit now I’m going to be late for class.” Angela scowled as she slowly bent down to pluck her school books from the muddy ground beneath her. Having worn a rather revealing skirt this morning, she tried her best not to let her teenage buns show as she scooped up her books. Something wasn’t right, though and she had a panicked feeling race through her. As she started to stand straight up she felt a deadening pain slap at her crotch, right between the back of her legs. She cried out in pain and her knees buckled. She turned her head to locate her assailant but all she saw was a banana bicycle seat spinning close to her, and heard the cold, shrill laugh of a maniac in the distant. Dr. Hymenbreaker had claimed his 5th victim this week.

    I’m not a great writer…but this is EXACTLY what I thought of when I read Dr. Hymenbreaker’s name. I hate you.

    In hindsight, if I used a map of some sort, I could have easily made this a much better paragraph. Good advice!

    • @Paul —

      It’s amazing, but I think you’re actually more disturbed than me.

      No easy feat, that. Have a cookie!

      By the way, I’m really, really tempted to write a bullshit Codpiece Johnson novel and just slap it up on the web for like, fifty cents. I’m dead goddamn serious.

      — c.

  • … I can’t escape (axescape?) Axe Bodyspray. It’s everywhere I go. It’s in the middle of my Lost commercials. It’s in the mall when I’m shopping for crayons and flea collars. It’s even in my hallway, because the 20-something who lives on the second floor drowns himself in it every morning before he resurrects himself and heads out to university.

    And now, now it’s here too. It’s in my Chuck-time. It’s where I least expected it.

    IS NOTHING SACRED ANYMORE?

  • FYI, greatest place on earth to find realistic character names: the cemetery.

    The names are already broken in, life ready. It seems so artificial when I pick names out of a baby book. I always end up with things like Mary Kirby or John Littlefield.

    Only at the cemetery can you get gems like Harriet Witham or Hudson B Shotwell…

    • @TNT-Tek:

      Holy crap, the cemetery. Yes! Yes.

      My character names are not taken from the cemetery on this one, but that might’ve been appropriate…

      Hurrrm.

      — c.

  • @TNT….I do the same thing….whats cool is I live 2 blocks away from a cemetary dating back to 1785 to 1896 (date of last burial)…so you get alot of Augustus’s & Nathaniels’s etc. lol!!! quite funny, but truely unique however!

  • Alright, I have punished you enough.

    Or have I?

    Have you been a good boy?

    Some titles for you to kick around. Codpiece for Hire; The Johnson Chronicles; Aristotle: Myth and Legend, as envisioned by Codpiece Johnson, PhD; Trousersnake Blues; xSHADOWBLADEx; Deadly Strike: A Woman’s Tale of Courage; Wickedsauce; Dr. Hymenbreaker (Or How I Came to Love the Codpiece and Stop Worrying); When Philo Met Coddy

    Also, I have successfully embiggened. You need help.

  • I’m so happy to finally have a “mind map” explained to me. This entire time of being a Wendigo fan I’ve just smiled and nodded every time you used that term, like, “Oh, yeah, mind maps…they totally rock. I know exactly where you’re coming from.” But inside I was scared as hell and unsure of myself. Now I can rest easy and stop peeing the bed. :D

    For my next book, I will MOST DEFINITATELY be creating a mind map! Brilliant!

    *Side Note: Chuck, for some commercial silliness, check out my blog today. You might find it amusing if you enjoyed the old Bud Light commercials for Real American Heroes.* ;)

  • I have a weird dislike of mind maps. Mostly because every example is some huge fucking octopus thing with tons of concepts that looks more like chaos than… well, organized chaos. But this explanation and example I get — it’s something I could use to get ideas down before breaking things up into outlines and character diamonds, instead of thinking I need to have it as part of my writing process (which seemed way too crazy and wild for me).

    So, thanks for that.

  • You know…the thing…with the whatsit and the thingamajig…

    The link from my blog. I might have missed a setting that shoots comments over if I put a link in. I don’t want to spam your comments with my oddities by accident.

    • Oh, heh, no — that’s a WordPress slash blog thing. You can turn it off on your blog, but it’s fine if you leave it from my perspective. Pingbacks are okie-dokie here.

      — c.

  • Are you keeping your current name source under your hat? I am intrigued by your apparent reticence!

    • @Josh:

      I am indeed! Though, not to be obstructive — actually, I kind of want to know that, when the time comes, will people be able to figure it out? The source, I mean? Might be good contest fodder.

      — c.

  • It’s funny about the naming thing — sometimes trying to name the characters just gets in the way for me. The number one smartest thing I did in the story I’m working on now was to name the characters by their role in the main plot: “Deadguy”, “Killer”, “Patsy”. It’s actually been really helpful in writing, because it’s forced me to focus on who they really are every time I mention them. Why is this guy dead? Why is this guy taking the fall for it? What is it about the way he interacts with people that just makes them say, “Yup, I’m going to go through all kinds of crap to put a fucking stake through your chest.”

    After the first scene I went back and started to give them names, and it just wasn’t working, so I took them out again — at this point I’m not going to name them until after the first draft is done. I’m not saying that this will work well in other stories, it might only work well here because all the characters have similar occupations and might otherwise get lost in the plot. I just thought it was interesting, is all.

    (Never did get the hang of mind-mapping either, come to think of it. Wonder if there’s a connection there…)

  • Ah, mindmaps! They’re brainjuice on paper.

    I draw them all the time when working on a story. I have small ones in notebooks, smaller ones on index cards, big ones on A3 pieces of paper. I do mindmaps on my phone. I do mindmaps on mindmeister.com. I would draw mindmaps on my wall if I didn’t have a whiteboard there.

    They’re great for brainstorming worldbuilding bits, plot elements, specific characters, etc. But I had never thought of making a general map of characters. Your idea, sir, is pure geniusyness. I’ll have to try that for my next project. And blog about it on quenouille.com (if you allow me to).

    Has anybody used one successfully to develop a whole plot? I tried that only once, but failed miserably.

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