2015 update: while this functionality still exists in OS X, it has been renamed and placed under the “Emoji and Symbols” menu option within Edit on your Mac. Full instructions on finding this are available here on Apple.com: Use the Character Viewer
Apple’s Character Palette is great for finding problematic characters that aren’t located easily by pinyin, and if you’re on a Mac, you don’t even have to download anything!
There are so many useful Chinese characters that most typing programs just don’t have, like the name ?. While pinyin input is appropriate for day-to-day typing in Chinese, there are many characters that were never programmed into it. Occasionally you’ll find yourself stuck scrolling up and down for a rare character, straining your eyes and patience. Eventually you have to give up and settle for a similar-looking or sounding character.
Rare characters are already in your computer
Just place your text cursor wherever you want to insert a special character. On the top menu bar click Edit (??), and at the bottom of that menu, select Special Character (????) which opens the Character Palette (????). Where the View (??) dropdown will read Roman (??), select Simplified Chinese (????) from the list and three page-dividers emerge: Category (???), Radical (???) Favorites (????). Click by Radical (???) and on the left panel below you’re presented with a radical index: a vertical list of every Chinese radical organized by stroke count. Select one and the panel to the right displays all characters including the radical you specified. Double click on the character you want inserted into your document, web browser or any other text space, and the character appears there. Simple as that.
If the character you’re looking for is doesn’t appear in the Character Palette’s right panel then check for another radical within the character for which you’re searching. For example, sometimes a character with a simple radical, like ? at the top of the traditional ?, needs to be searched for through the radical at its bottom, ?.
In Apple’s Character Palette system, the grass radical (? or “???”) is listed on the left panel as ?. Other difficult listings** include body-part-related characters (like ?) listed under ?, “???” characters listed under ??”???” (?) characters under ?, ?/? under ?, and ? under ?. You’ll have fun exploring the possibilities on your own.
Character Info (????) is found by single-clicking the triangle found just below the radical index panel. You can single-click the Font Variation (????) triangle to close it if you want to free up more screen real estate. For more common characters, Pinyin (??) with tone number is listed along with other info, like Wubi (???) input encoding. Chaibai (??) reveals the pinyin spelling for each of the radicals within that character. You can also drag the character from the large box on the left to a text space in another program or document. If you’ll be using this character again, click on the gear icon on the Character Palette, select Add to Favorites (????????) and it will be added to your Favorites page. Once you add characters to your favorites, you can access then easily by singe-clicking the Favorites page divider button near the top of the Character Palette.
To search the meanings of rare radicals and characters online, baike.baidu.com and hudong.com/wiki provide extensive listings that are virtually guaranteed to include what you’re looking for. However, you’ll have to be literate enough to read the definitions in Chinese or else run them through Google Translate or Wenlin.
Look for a future post about inputting Chinese with your fingertip using the Multi-Touch input built into Macbook Pros running Snow Leopard.