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The Character Map Tool on the Microsoft Windows Operating System

Updated on October 19, 2013

The Character Map for the Arial Font

Screenshot of the Character Map in the Windows Operating System.
Screenshot of the Character Map in the Windows Operating System. | Source

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.

Use the Character Map for Professional Documentation: It's a Fast Path to the World of Fonts and Symbols

To access the character map on any modern Windows machine, select the Start menu, then in the Search Programs and Files box type Character Map and select it from the list that appears.

Tip 1: On Windows 8®-based systems, use the Windows 8 Search feature and type "Ch". The Character Map program should be near the top of the list.

Tip 2: I simply put an icon for the Character Map on my desktop so I have easy-access to this handy tool.

What can the Character Map provide that you can't get from clicking the "symbol" icon/choice in various programs? Quite a lot, actually. 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.

Character Map Grouped by Unicode Subrange Latin

Here’s a Handy Shortcut... Or Two... For Finding Your Specific Character

  1. Look near the bottom of the Character Map window where it says, Group by: there is a box that, by default, says All.
  2. Click the down arrow for that box and scroll down until you see Unicode Subrange (I believe that it is the last option on the list for most Windows operating systems).
  3. Select it, and 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.

    Going into the details of typefaces and Unicode is beyond the scope of this tutorial.

  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.

Choose a Symbol to Use

  1. To retrieve a symbol for use in your project, first click on it in the Character Map.
  2. Click Select. Your symbol appears in the Characters to copy box and the Copy button becomes available.
  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 in your document and adjust its size to match the surrounding text if necessary.

Trick 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 automatically clicking the symbol button and switching to the Symbol or Wingdings fonts to get the look you need.

Why? Because

  • more fonts associated with a document increase the file size and increases the time it takes to load a web page
  • the special character will not match, esthetically, the rest of your document (even special characters are designed to look like the rest of the typeface), and
  • there is an increased chance that the fonts will be “forgotten” when a document goes to press/the web.

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 printed and onscreen on most computer platforms and through most viewing devices and browsing platforms, and it contains a huge number of glyphs. Next time you're sick of seeing Arial "again", just think of all the benefits it provides, particularly in this global world where text is often translated into different languages with different glyphs and symbols, including some fun and decorative ones.

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 and documentation in town in no time.


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    • Laura Schneider profile image

      Laura Schneider 5 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

      You're welcome, Bob!

      I should really write a hub about those ALT+ codes... I'll add it to my list. It's part of the next layer of complexity of the Character Map, which is really just a user interface into the world of the fonts.

    • Bob Ferreira profile image

      Bob Ferreira 5 years ago

      Great info in this hub! I actually wasn't aware of this feature and would often just Google the ALT+___ codes for special characters.

      Voted up - thank you!