A friend recently asked me if I keep tabs on what characters are doing when they are not in the scene. The answer is both yes and no because it really depends on the character and what is happening in the storyline.
Some characters aren’t important enough to keep track of. There is no reason to track the off screen movements of very minor characters, obviously, but I also typically don’t keep track of reoccurring characters whose lives aren’t currently being affected by the plot. I can assume, if whatever crisis isn’t touching them, that during working hours they are at work and during home hours they are at home doing whatever it is they do in their off hours. Of course, everyone has more turmoil in their lives than that, but if I spent time tracking every single character who walked on the page, I’d never get a book finished.
For characters whose lives are being altered by the events of the plot, I try to keep up with a general idea of what is happening to them as the story progresses. I write from a single point of view in all of my books, so the reader only finds out information as my character does. That means there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes. The more change in a non-pov character’s life and the more important that character is to the plot, the closer I need to pay attention to what is happening to them while off the screen. This doesn’t mean I keep an extensive outline. In fact, typically the most notation I make is a reminder to myself in the scene’s note section that while main character is doing ABC that secondary character is doing XYZ. But often that isn’t even necessary except for the more major characters as long as I keep a realistic time frame in my head of what can be accomplished while those characters aren’t on the screen.
The one character I almost always have to write an off-screen outline for is the villain. As a writer I have to know 1) what my villains goals are 2) what steps he or she is taking to achieve those goals and 3) how the actions of my hero changes the villains plans and how he or she compensates and reacts. Now, when I say outline, I’m typically not talking about a scene by scene outline like when I plan a book, but a summary of the general course of actions throughout the book. Some areas have to be very specific though, especially if I’m following a more mystery format for the book and the main character has multiple interactions with the villain. The villain has to have time to accomplish certain goals, and as I writer, I have to make sure that he or she logically moves forward–even if my main character will never know all that occurred.
Now, as always, this is just my process. I imagine if I wrote from multiple points of view I’d have more off screen outlines because I’d have to know what POV characters were doing while I wasn’t in their heads.
So how about you? Do you keep track of your characters when they are out of the scene? Which characters and how do you keep tabs on them?