Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor

Character Tracking for Fantasy Writers

By Brenda Jenkins Kleager
© 2007, Brenda Jenkins Kleager

(The chart for this article can be downloaded in PDF format here)

While teaching full-time, I started just fewer than a dozen novels, but never finished one. After taking an early retirement, I have had time to complete a full-length novel as a result of successfully completing the National Novel Writing Month challenge.

The time period, genre and character types came to me as naturally as breathing. However, as my plot developed, and new characters demanded to appear, I had difficulty keeping track of the names and traits of each character. This common dilemma seems especially challenging for the writer of fantasy when characters have a variety of abilities, weaknesses and nonhuman qualities.

Out of self-defense against massive rewrites and self-confusion, I developed the Character Tracking Form for Fantasy Writers. Its focus is the medieval times of wizards, druids and witches, but it can be used with equal success for other times, realms and beings.

An excellent book that I turn to again and again when trying to determine specific characteristics for fantasy races or individuals is The Complete Fantasy Reference. The Writer’s Digest editors could have aptly titled the work, The Complete Fantasy Characters Reference. The authors looked at traditional views of nontraditional humans and creatures. It also gives historical facts about clothing, dwellings, weapons and economics of medieval times. Many of the ideas for my tracking chart have come from this book.

My Character Tracking Form for Fantasy Writers begins with the character’s name Simple enough? Never. Names convey much and should never befuddle the reader. By having an individual sheet for each named character, the author can easily rearrange the pages to ensure that the names neither begin nor end with the same confusing sounds; for example Thor, Thur, Thain, Thern.

The first three categories deal with clan, family and race. You may need all three for your work or just one or two. You may also want to rename one of the categories. Make it work for you. If the king, lord or whoever does battle, you will probably want to give the army specific colors and perhaps a symbol such as a dragon.

The next categories have spaces for recording the age and physical features of the characters, which are important but rarely overlooked by the author.

Descriptions for characters’ speech should be specific and different for each character who appears repeatedly. A character of high rank in the society might speak formally, while one of his or her warriors might use more crude speech. Other characters could use curt, short phrases when speaking- or long rambling discourse. Some might take on the unique accents reminiscent of our deep south, ancient Scotland or an original accent made up by the author. A serving maid might seem ditsy or more intelligent than her master or mistress. In addition, the character will probably have a habitual exclamation or a phrase he or she repeats. “Fie!” and “Praise the gods” would be good ones.

Normal skills refer to things that humans (or the dominant race) usually are able to do. The character may have developed a common skill due to an interest or talent in the area. These could include art, sword fighting, woodworking, cooking, and logic. Alternately, a character could show an unexpected lack of skill in an expected area. How about a prince who is extremely klutzy at swinging a sword?

In fantasy fiction that has elements of magic or supernatural the author must keep the magic consistent among characters and / or character types. For example all wizards might be able to drawn down storms, but Merlin always added the color purple to his lightening. The fantasy author would need to keep these assumptions constant throughout the book. If there are several wizards who each use different colors for lightening, the author needs make sure that Merlin’s lightening is always purple and that Goloren’s lightening is always green. Or if there are wizards, witches, sorcerers, and druids in the novel, the author should create specific magical abilities for each class. Use the section on the tracking form to keep a record of magical abilities for each character. 

Magical weaknesses for characters can be recorded too. No matter how strong the character’s abilities are, there must be at least one weakness in the character’s magic – or the character must be able to be negatively affected by another’s abilities whether magic or not.

Even minor characters have agenda. What is it that the character is trying to do? Save the world, find a wife, discover a way to Avalon? Keep the character’s goal or motivation handy for quick reference.

Record the intelligence of each character, whether perceived or actual. Enough said.

How a character dresses day-to-day shows the character’s status and could give clues as to his or her personality. You might want to record clothing specifics for various occasions. Be sure to include any accessories that might be worn at all times; a torc, a broach, a necklace.

The character’s social class will affect how the character acts when with others, as well as how others respond to him or her. Small nuances could signal a plot clue. If a lord doesn’t bow quite as low as expected to a king, the lord may be planning to overthrow the king’s court.

The character’s function and / or role in the tale may or may not be determined by social class. The function of a lady’s maid could include her role as the lady’s confidant as well.

The same is true of how the character is addressed and how others address the character. Calling a lord “sir” or “lord” is a sign of respect. On the other hand, calling a lord “lad” or by his name would be a sign of familiarity or insult.

Mannerisms are unconscious actions that characters repeat in certain circumstances. Lord Kieram might look at his feet when faced with making an important decision. His daughter, Princess Aslata, might flutter her eyelashes in the presence of a handsome man.

An opportunity to blend setting and characters comes when you describe the places that a character frequents, especially where he or she lives. You will further establish characters’ social classes as well as personality clues. Include details as well as general impressions of spaces in your characters’ lives.

Look to reference books and online resources to give each of your characters distinct and believable personalities. Also, read a bit about personality disorders. Feeling Good by David Burns is a good title for this area of research. His book includes psychological aspects of anger, love, entitlement, approval and other topics.

Paul and Barbara Tieger detail sixteen basic personality types. By varying the degrees of each dimension, you will have more than enough choices to depict each of your characters – even if they share the same four aspects of personality.

My terms interpretation of the Tiegers’ continuum of individual traits follows:

Extraverts – Introverts

Reality Focus – Possibility Focus

Logical, Competitive, Tactless – Intuitive, Sensitive, Like Harmony

Black and White Opinions – Shades of Gray Opinions

Keep in mind that a character could be a tactless introvert who looks at all options before making  a decision (possibility focus), but whose judgments of  others tend to be quick (black and white opinions).

In The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, Linda Edelstein includes sections on group influences on people, nonverbal and verbal communication, and emotions. The author uses convenient lists which makes a quick job of looking up a variety of characteristics. Authors of any fiction would find this book useful to develop roles of leaders, scapegoats and seducers as well as other fascinating characters. Use the information to analyze your fantasy characters and to complete the last few items on my chart.

The final three categories on the cart are related to each other. Look back over the personality traits of your character. What one positive characteristic stands out and will serve to describe him/her best? Likewise, what one negative characteristic could be the character’s downfall if not kept in check or changed? In order for the character to succeed in his / her goal the character will probably have to undergo some kind of inner change which is usually the character’s greatest weakness. And the character will use his / her dominant inner strength to finally reach the goal. By looking at one strength and one weakness for each of the main viewpoint characters, the story’s goal, obstacles and final success will be easier to write.

Although successful fantasy fiction must have strong plots and good story lines; this genre, perhaps more than others, relies on unique characters that the author is obligated to fully depict. I hope that my Character Tracking Form for Fantasy Writers and this article will make the task of creating your magical characters as fun as plotting their journeys throughout your realms.


Just Your Type: Create the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted Using the Secrets of Personality Type, Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger. Brown, Little and Company, 2000. ISBN 0-316-84569-8

The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference, David H. Borcherding and others. Writer’s Digest Books, 1998. ISBN 0-89879-866-3

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. David D. Burns, M.D. Quill, 2000. ISBN 0-380-73176-2

Dramatica Pro software. Dramatica theory developed by Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips, 1999. Screenplay Systems, Inc. Patent # 5,734,916

The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. Linda N. Edelstein, PhD. Writer’s Digest Books, 1999. ISBN 0-89879-901-5