using Excel to track your characters and timeline

<spoiler alert: if you’re reading-averse, skip to the end, where I post my templates>

I had gotten only a few chapters into Califar when I realized that a character that I’d described as old was really too young for that description. Another pair of characters were going to hook up when the girl was too young (and probably get her author arrested). Thus the need for a better tracking mechanism.

Being of a technical bent, I fired up Excel and created a spreadsheet to track the various character names, their characteristics, ages, etc. This turned out to be a terrific tool. Of course, if you don’t have Excel, you can use a free tool like Google Docs’ online spreadsheets. Here are the basics:

  • list your character names across the top in columns B through whatever
  • in column A, row 2, type the first year of the activities in your book
  • then go across row 2 and list, underneath each character name, the age of your character at that year
  • fill out other events and do a bunch of math. Or, use my template!

As I add major events to the timeline, I note on the spreadsheet when those events occur and can see at a glance the ages of the major characters at that time. This helps avoid logic errors (such as having characters marry or have children too young, get described as old when they aren’t, participate in activities after they’ve died, live unnaturally long lives or consistently die too young, etc.).

Of course, doing the math yourself is no fun at all, so that’s where Excel’s formula calculations come in. Sadly, this is more work than you’d think (or at least, it’s more work than I though it would be!)–so I’ve posted a template that you can use.

Since Excel documents can have multiple ‘tabs’ for individual worksheets, I use additional worksheets to list and sort the names of my characters as well as their defining characteristics. This way I can ensure that I don’t, for instance, have 7 characters with very similar names, or bunch up all the names at one end of the alphabet. I hate when I’m reading a book with a lot of characters and I can’t keep the names straight because the author has used Harry, Harris, Harold, Hubert and Humbert. Listing all the names lets me ensure that my key characters are unique.

Now that I’ve set up that spreadsheet, whenever I’m writing a chapter and add some new description of a character (their eye color, etc.) I add that as notes into the spreadsheet. Naturally this came from need as well, having realized during an early re-read that I’d described a character as having green eyes and her mother as having blue eyes. Genetically, that won’t work!

Here’s the Excel template for old versions of Excel:

Here’s an improved version for Excel 2007 (Office 2007 Windows)  or Excel 2008 (Office 2008 Macintosh): 


2 thoughts on “using Excel to track your characters and timeline”

  1. Hi,

    I just came to your (very funny!) site from the Writer’s Digest Forums, where you mentioned the Excel spreadsheet. I downloaded that (thank you very much) and I was wondering if you ever posted the Word templates you mentioned in your post on the Forum. I’d love to have copies if they are available!

    Thank you,

  2. I have tried so many times to make an excel spreadsheet to do exactly what yours does and I’ve never succeeded. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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