Very early on, we started keeping profiles of all our characters. Some of these are only a few lines. Some are pretty big. The profile for the heroine and “author” of my million-word memoir, for example, is five pages and 2,059 words long. It has to be that large, because it tracks her entire career as an army spy. It includes sections for all the places she serves, all the medals she earns, the dates of all her promotions, and so on.
That’s a special case, of course. Usually these things take up no more than half a page. Here’s the general format that we use:
The amount of detail that we include depends, naturally, on the importance of the character to the story.
“Name” is the character’s full name, with any nicknames, titles, or military ranks indicated. Sometimes we will add a brief description of the character’s role in the story here, too: “Wizard Boyfriend” or “Grumpy Sidekick.” That can be especially useful if we haven’t bothered to come up with a name, yet.
“Age” is the character’s age when the story starts (or, in some cases, the character’s age during the main action of the story)
“Born” probably should be “birthplace,” instead, since that’s what we usually put there.
“Family” can be quite short for minor characters. For instance, it could be something like, “Parents farmers. One younger sister.” For major characters, though, we could have an entire elaborate family tree, with dates of births, marriages, and deaths recorded.
“Likes/Dislikes” are a good way to start thinking about the character as a real person. We usually try to mention any close friendships or bitter rivalries that the character has, particularly with other major characters. We would also have favorite foods, beverages, hobbies, and so on.
“Physical Appearance” includes, at the very least, the character’s height, eye and hair color, and general build. If the character has a distinctive manner of dress (e.g. always dressing in black), that would probably get mentioned here, too.
“Other Characteristics” are any qualities or attributes that aren’t related to physical appearance. Is the character sarcastic? Or greedy? Or particularly bad at math?
“Other Facts” is a catch-all category that usually ends up being a brief biography of the character. For major characters, this might be pretty detailed. At the very least, though, we would try to think of any parts of the character’s backstory that might be relevant to the plot: where did he go to school? How long has he been at his current job? What did he do before that?
Is all this necessary? In my experience, it certainly is. Many times I’ve gone back to the character file to confirm a fact I was sure I knew, only to discover that I remembered it completely wrong. There’s one character in the memoir, for example, who I kept thinking was blonde, even though it says right there on her profile that she has light brown hair. A more embarrassing example involves one of the four main POV characters of the Quartet. He’s quite athletic, but he’s not especially large. Somehow, over months and years of writing scenes of his martial arts exploits, I got it into my head that he must be huge and buff. Then one day I happened to look at his character profile, and I realized that he was five inches shorter than I thought.
So, yeah, it’s important to write this stuff down, and it’s important to check it regularly.