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The Highly Under-Rated Character Map Tool on the Windows OS

Updated on November 28, 2021
Laura Schneider profile image

Laura is a technical writer. She enjoys playing the piano, traveling, fine art, and making jewelry.

Using Special Characters

If you’re like most people, if you want to use a Greek character or a non-standard math symbol, box-shaped characters, etc. you’ll look to the font “Symbol” or “WingDings” or another “character font”. This usually works, with a little effort. But if you do this often, you will find that, instead, using the Character Map to locate these items is a much better and faster solution.

How to Access the Character Map App

To access the Character Map app, which is available on all Windows computers do the following. At the bottom left of your screen to the right of the Windows logo, in the Type here to search box, type "Character Map". Select that app from the list that appears.

Tip

Put an icon for the Character Map app on your desktop or pin it to your Taskbar (bottom row of frequently used applications) so that you can quickly access this handy tool.

The Character Map for the Calibri Font

Screenshot of the Character Map Main Screen, Microsoft Windows 10
Screenshot of the Character Map Main Screen, Microsoft Windows 10 | Source

What's So Special About the Character Map App?

What can the Character Map provide that you can't get from clicking the "symbol" icon or choice in various programs? Quite a lot, actually. The humble Character Map app is your superhighway to the world of fonts, symbols, and special characters.

Every typeface that you have installed on your computer is available via the Character Map, and every glyph (character, sign, number…) within each typeface is available via the Character Map.

Some fonts, like Arial, are robust and contain hundreds of glyphs, which is desirable. However, the task of finding the one you’re looking for might seem daunting at first.

Handy Shortcuts for Finding Your Specific Character

Look near the bottom of the Character Map window where it says, Group by: there is a box that, by default, says All.

Click the down arrow for that box, and scroll to the bottom and select Unicode Subrange. For more information about Unicode, check out the O'Reilly book Unicode Explained: Internationalize Documents, Programs, and Web Sites.

The main character window typically changes and a new small window appears titled Group By.

The Group By: Unicode Subrange" Window of the Character Map

Screenshot showing that the glyphs are currently grouped by the "Latin" subrange.
Screenshot showing that the glyphs are currently grouped by the "Latin" subrange. | Source

The Many "Unicode Subrange" Views Available

  1. The Character Map main page now shows fewer characters and a smaller box, the Group By box, that appears immediately to its right. This box has a sub-heading of Unicode Subrange.

    Note:
    Going into the details of fonts and Unicode is beyond the scope of this tutorial. For more information on fonts, see the O'Reilly book Fonts & Encodings: From Advanced Typography to Unicode and Everything in Between.

  2. Scroll up and down the Group By box contents and you will see some familiar names: General Punctuation, Currency, Number Forms, Arrows, Symbols & Dingbats, and a host of other choices.

Character Map Main Window with Group by Set to Unicode Subrange

Character Map with the character "é" selected and copied.
Character Map with the character "é" selected and copied. | Source

Choose a Character to Use

  1. To retrieve a character for use in your text, first click on it in the Character Map. For example, é.
  2. Click Select. Your symbol appears in the Characters to copy box and the Copy button becomes active.
  3. Click Copy. Whatever is in the Characters to copy box will be copied to your clipboard.
  4. Now, paste the character(s) where you want it(them) in your document and adjust the size to match the surrounding text if necessary.

Note In the image above,

  • "A" indicates the Unicode identity of the character followed by its formal name. In this example, the Unicode for this character is "U+00E9" and it is formally known as "Latin Small Letter E With Acute".
  • "B" indicates the keyboard shortcut, known as an "Alt code", for this character. Not all characters have these shortcuts, but many do.

Trick: Use Alt Codes to Quickly Insert Special Characters

To insert a character with an Alt code:

Press and hold the Alt key on the keyboard. Type the 4 numerals after it ("0233" in this case) on your keyboard's 10-key pad, or equivalent. Release the Alt key, and the character (é) appears at your cursor's insertion point in the font, size, and style that you are currently using.

Alt codes work across programs and fonts as long as the font contains that character. Unsupported characters appear as a thin square box in those fonts.

Method 2

Another way of finding the glyph that you are looking for is to search for it by typing its formal name, “semicolon” for example, in the Search For: box, and then clicking Search. If any part of your search words match the name of a glyph (letter, number, etc.), they will appear in the box above and you can select and insert them into your document following the directions above.

The trick to this trick, however, is knowing in advance what the character's formal name is.

Screen Video Showing How to Use the Character Map in Windows

This Method of Inserting Symbols is Good Form and Keeps File Sizes Low

The next time you are writing, see if the special character you are looking for is available in your current font by checking the Character Map (set to the font you are using, of course) rather than clicking the symbol button in your program or switching to the Symbol or Wingdings fonts to get the look you need.

Why use special characters in your current font?

  • More fonts associated with a document increase the file size and increases the time it takes to load web pages.
  • The special character will not match, esthetically, the rest of your document because even special characters are designed to look like the rest of the typeface.
  • There is an increased chance that the specialty font will be “forgotten” or defaulted to something incorrect when a document goes to press or is viewed on the Internet.

For example, someone using a Braille font would probably need to guess what your missing figure is. In short, more fonts equal more chance for problems and confusion in the final stages of a document's production and release.

Arial is a very strong font because it looks good both in print and onscreen, on most computer platforms, and through most viewing devices and browsing platforms. It also contains a HUGE number of glyphs compared to many other fonts. So, next time you're sick of seeing "Arial again", just remember the benefits it provides, particularly in this global world where text is often translated into different languages with different glyphs and symbols, including many fun and decorative ones, and viewed on tiny watch faces, smartphones, and myriad other user interfaces.

For more information about fonts, refer to the book Why Fonts Matter.

What do you think?

Will you try using the Character Map the next time you need to find a special character?

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Have you ever used the Character Map before reading this article?

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Use the Character Map, Not the Symbol Icon

If Character Map sounds like more work than just clicking the Symbol icon in Word, just remember that the Symbol icon in Microsoft Word and other products contains just a small fraction of the glyphs available to you in each font. It should be avoided because it is bad form to use a different font to achieve the results in the main font unless you have a good, specific reason—such as, the symbol is not available in your chosen font.

Put a shortcut to the Character Map in your taskbar and you'll have the best presentations, websites, and documentation in no time.

© 2012 Laura Schneider

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