Keeping track of characters

In discussions with other writers, we've talked about how to keep track of characters. There are actually two main aspects for me: the names I've used, and what those characters are like. There's a brilliant cartoon by Tom Gauld: The Indecisive Novelist, where the characters from a book are discussing their name changes:

Taken from:
No copyright infringement intended

That cartoon can touch a nerve with many of us! So how do we keep track of the myriad of characters that appear in our books?

Names Used

All of the writers I know have favourite names, or at least names we keep coming back to. Most have developed a system for keeping track of the names they've used in books. For some, this is a spreadsheet with both first and second names listed alphabetically and separately, and the books in which they've appeared listed next to the name. It's an at-a-glance way of seeing that a name has already been used. I really should have done that after writing my first two crime novels as I kept returning to the same names I used in them when I started drafting "book #10".

Why do authors tend to keep wanting to use the same name? I can't speak for others, but I used to work in education and that makes choosing names really difficult. "Paul?" "Ooh no, there was a horrible Paul in year X. I can't see my main character being called that."* As a consequence, I end up with a smallish pool of names that don't have other (negative) connotations.

*Paul is being used as an example! I did not have a horrible student called Paul.

For my Guardians of The Realm series, I have index cards listing all the characters. More major characters have their own card (and perhaps something more detailed... more on that in a moment). Others may be listed as a group.

What the Characters Are Like

This is where more detailed index cards and/or notes come in for me. Most characters have their own card, listing physical attributes, a brief character sketch, plus relationship information (how they are linked to other characters - are they married? Who are their friends/supporters/opponents? etc). I also have where and when they have appeared in each book if they are less frequently appearing characters. It's also fairly important to know if they've died! Or been seriously injured.

At the start of writing the Guardians of The Realm series, I made very detailed notes on the main characters. Now that I'm drafting a 5th book in the series, I don't really need to refer to them any more.