Friday, February 03, 2012

What Do They Know? Keeping Track of Character Knowledge

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last week I talked about inserting small mysteries all throughout the story, so today, let's talk about keeping track of those mysteries and how they affect your plot. More specifically, what your characters know about those mysteries, what they think they know, and what they're just plain wrong about.

Have you ever had to flip back to double check what a character knows (or doesn't know)? Happens to me all the time, especially in revisions. I've found keeping a record of character knowledge really helps and cuts down on the amount of frustrating searches.

I use a spreadsheet, but any kind of list would work. The goal is to keep critical knowledge handy when you need it. I break it down to character and chapter. For example, if Bob hears a rumor in chapter six about a secret lab working on a cure for zombies, I go to Bob's row and chapter six's column and put down "rumor of secret lab." If he finds clues that suggest this lab is being run by the very people who set lose the zombie plague in chapter nine, I add in "thinks Gen-Core runs lab." As the clues (and assumptions) mount, I add them in. By the time I get to Bob discovering the real truth in chapter seventeen, all I need to do is check my spreadsheet to see what he knows so I know how he'd react to or deal with that truth. (And anything that might still need to be revealed)

Why Does This Matter?
I don't know about you, but if there's a lot going on in a story I sometimes forget who said what where. (Especially if I'm revising or have done several drafts) I might have someone shocked to discover something I actually had them learn five chapters earlier. Or I'm not sure if my protag knows a key piece of info they really needed to know by the time they got to this part of the book. Tracking it saves me the hassle of having to look for it, prevents me from repeating myself, and helps me with continuity and pacing. I can easily see when information is revealed -- a big part of keeping readers hooked.

What Do They Know?
Throughout the story your characters are going to be gathering information and learning things, even if it's not a mystery plot. They might be learning about loved ones, themselves, figuring out how to build a weather balloon, whatever is needed for the story. If your plot involves a mystery, the amount of information is bound to increase. You don't need to track everything, but anything plot related or details that matter down the line when someone knew something is helpful to write down. Things like...
  • When did someone first meet a character?
  • When did someone learn something critical?
  • What clues were found that someone might not have realized were clues?
  • What realizations did someone have?
  • When did someone start to suspect something?
What Do They Think?
Proving or disproving a belief is a big part of any plot, so I find it helpful to know what a character thinks, even if they haven't confirmed (or denied) it yet. This belief is very likely motivating them, and thus driving the goals and plot. Characters get information and then act on that information. You might want to track...
  • What someone think a clue means
  • Suspicions about a person or event
  • Who isn't trusted and why
  • Who is trusted and why
  • What bits of information or prior clues are making someone act
What Are They Wrong About?
On the flip side, characters get things wrong all the time. (So much fun). Since we know the truth, sometimes it's easy to forget the character doesn't know it, or thinks something else. So we might write a scene in a way that doesn't quite add up. Even though they don't know something, they act as if they do, and it changes the scene. I like to keep track of what they got wrong. This helps with red herrings and letting the protag make mistakes. Look for...
  • False conclusions based on available information or beliefs
  • Lies told by the antagonist or another character
  • Any cons being run (I use the word con loosely here. Anyone trying to pull a fast one)
  • Things the protag totally missed or read wrong
One extra beneficial thing about paying attention to what a character is wrong about, is that it allows you to see where you can surprise the reader. If all the character does is prove their theories correct, then the plot becomes predictable. But if they're wrong, then anything can happen.

Keeping Track of the Truth
It's not a bad idea to keep track of the truth as well. That way you have a record of what's really going on and where those truths or clues might be found in the story. It's heartbreaking to finally get a scene working, and then discover the big discovery your protag made in chapter eleven won't work because the antag didn't actually leave that clue until chapter fourteen.

You might think this is only good for mysteries, but all plots can benefit from a little record keeping. Think about how much time characters spend wondering what that love interest meant by X or the reasons behind Y. Jot down a few notes, and you'll always have control of your story's information superhighway.

Do you ever forget details and have to go searching for them? Do you keep track of who knows what and when? Would tracking info be a help, or feel like a hassle?


  1. I am so NOT an organizer...but I love when stuff is organized. It helps me so much. I just procrastinate getting it all in order. But this is a great reminder of why we need to have SOMETHING to keep us on track. I've been guilty of not remembering what happened when and chasing down that one sentence in a slough of paragraphs.
    Quite a waste of time.
    Thanks for spelling this all out for us, Janice.

  2. I use XMind to track these things. It makes it easier to move things around later, and it's free.

  3. Do you use the same worksheet to track these? A separate sheet for each heading?


  4. Another great tip. I think I'm too far along in my WIP (well into the revisions stage) to use this now, but I've got a whole list of your suggestions that I want to use for my next project. Thanks!

  5. This is a great idea! I've been trying to find ways to get more organised with my writing, and to keep track of what I've done. This is definitely something I'll remember and hopefully put into practice once I finish planning and start writing.

  6. This is a great idea! I don't think that I've lost any information, but with five characters and multiple plot lines stretching into what will become four books, a mistake will become more and more likely.

    Bookmarking this page.

  7. Wow, looks like I found you just in time. I've authored a few picture books and short stories but I am a newbie embarking on the mystery novel journey. I know your advice will be of great value. Thanks.

  8. Amelia, I love organizational stuff, even though a lot of my life isn't organized :) Hope this helps get you a step more organized.

    Nathan, I haven't heard of XMind. I'll have to check it out, thanks!

    jsvetlik, I use the same sheet and just have a row for each character. Some rows get pretty big so you can fit it all in. But you could do a tab for each character if you wanted.

    Heather, happy to help.

    Imogen, thanks! Hope it works out for you.

    Misha, oh wow, that's sounds like a lot to keep track of :) You'll probably save yourself a lot of irritation later if you keep some sort or cheat sheet.

    Crystal, most welcome, and good luck!

  9. I did set up a spreadsheet many moons ago. I need it because I am writing a fantasy story with several characters with quite well-developed back-stories that I need to keep in mind as I go. And then the events in the story itself will affect their opinions and actions later on, so I need to know it all! But, admin isn't the most fun side of writing ...
    This is a reminder that I should go and update it.
    Thanks to Nathan for the XMind reference. I like checking out helpful tools!

  10. Great post! I've used what one author called a "Story Bible" with my WIP, although I'm adding to it mostly in my revisions. It's essentially the same as your idea, though I'm going to consider changing to a table, if it will make it easier to find things. I still find it useful in revision because I can make sure I didn't lose track of something, change someone's clothes, or assume a character knows something she doesn't.

    And it's definitely useful for more than just mysteries!

  11. Debbie, it can be work, but I've found the extra effort outside the book saves me time in the long rung inside the book. I can work out issues beforehand, so when I do sit down to write, it goes faster and I'm more productive.

    Monica, yep, that's pretty much what I'm talking about. I use both, actually, a table and a regular file of info. Varies per book depending n what I need :)

  12. Thanks,

    So helpful with my WIP.

  13. As an organic writer, keeping a spreadsheet like this would drive me nuts. The story is changing so much as I write that I wouldn't no what to keep and what not to keep. When I've tried story bibles, I've ended up abandoning them because I'm thinking, "Why do I need to write this down? I know what it is." I connect to every part of the story when I write, sort of like a pinball bouncing around, so if I'm thinking "What does the character know?" I'm bouncing back to that scene in my head and connecting it to where I'm at.

    Where I do use the story bible is to write down things that are harder for me to remember. It's mostly names, like the name of the island, the name of the island district, and the name of the chief of that district. I also add notes about what to research and if I'm missing any names for world building purposes. My story bible would probably disappoint most people because it's just a composition book, and one or two scenes per page.