Writing character profiles: looks and motivation

As part of the process of plotting a novel, I decided to write proper character profiles. Previously, I’d had little sketches and a note or two about them, but not a full study. That’s fine for the main character who I know quite well, but it wasn’t good enough for some of the smaller but still important characters. I needed to know more about them.

I probably won’t describe my characters’ physical attributes in great depth* but I still need to know what they look like. That means knowing their eye colour, hair-cut, size, clothing style and grooming habits. One of my characters, for example, is written with wild, fluffy, ginger hair. In my head, however, he’s got dreads. The character description sorted that out. (He used to have dreads, he now has long hair. Towards the end of the book, he’ll grow a beard. )

One of the most fun aspects of writing down what my characters look like, was surfing websites looking for faces and bodies to match them to. Keith, one of the major characters, is described early on as being startlingly good-looking.  So I visited a couple of modelling sites to find a face for him. To me, Keith looks like someone from a perfume ad, one of those ridiculously perfect guys with chiseled features and waxed pects. Model agencies should have dozens of those, I thought. But no, I can’t find any. There are lots of interesting-looking men but I can’t find one who looks just right. So Keith remains an image in my mind. Other characters were much easier to find: finding Stephen Fry in a velvet cloak and fez was the work of minutes.

Of course, it’s not all about what my cast of characters look like. The most important aspects of the profiles are the characters’ background and motivations. I’ve come across a number of problems – inconsistencies, bits of history that doesn’t work, the realisation that two characters that didn’t know each other probably went to school together – and learned useful things about my characters, and the world they live in, fixing them.

Writing character profiles doesn’t feel like writing a novel, but it valuable work, and involves writing. The process has given me useful insight into my cast. It was so useful, in fact, that I also wrote organisation profiles too. A number of organisations feature in the story and now I know how they are structured, who works where and what their purposes are.

And when I forget, in mid-April, I can go back and remind myself.


* Personally, I find extensive character description and constant updates on what people are wearing tiresome, but I accept that at a minimum, readers need to know whether a character is male or female, tall or short, young or old. It helps build the story’s world in the mind. If it’s not clear in my head, I can’t put it on the page and readers will quickly get confused.

The best rejection ever?

I mentioned that I sent a query after not hearing about a story. I’ve now heard and the rejection I received was the kindest, most encouraging and informative rejection I’ve had to date. It made me thoroughly happy.

Happy? About a rejection? Absolutely.

Stories are rejected for all kinds of different reasons. Looking past the past rookie mistakes (not following submission guidelines, or submitting bad writing) the story might just not fit the market, or be similar to something that featured recently, or have unsuitable content.

Mine was rejected because it was a cliché.

Most rejections don’t come with a reason, so finding out is a boon. And mea culpa, the story was a cliché, I just hadn’t realised. And that’s a problem. I should have recognised the pattern when I was writing it.

The editor liked the story a lot and was very close to running it. But that would be an open invitation to the world to fill his slush pile with more of the same. And that’s no fun for anyone. Fair enough. I hold on tightly to the pretty words, words like “your writing is first-rate“. Those are words that warm the cockles on a cold night. I might have them embroidered so I can hang them on the wall. And I take great comfort in the fact that the story was good enough for an editor to take the time to tell me why he wasn’t running it. It’s a huge compliment.

Unfortunately, that story was not my first cliché. I recently retired a story when I came across a description of the plot in a list of stories a magazine (or was it an anthology?) didn’t want*. There is was, among lists of plots that made me think “but surely no one would...”: my plot. The poor thing didn’t even make it out the door before it was retired. There was a reason for that: Julia’s Dream I knew for a cliché. But I liked it, mostly because it used a dream I had for one of the scenes, but also because I had fun playing with senses when I wrote it. It was good practice.

The conclusion is that I need to think of better plots. Original, interesting plots. Stuff with ideas. At the moment, I’m not writing much because all of my ideas feel unformed: I have a bunch of scenes but they don’t go anywhere.

I need to practice idea generation. I need to read more speculative fiction short stories.

I need to learn to recognise the ideas I shouldn’t run with.


Strange Horizon’s list of what they see too often makes interesting reading, as does the list of the horror stories they see too often. (Neither of these is the list I found my dream plot on. The story I had rejected this week fits loosely into three or four categories. Ouch.)

I really wanted to like Grimm

Monsters walk among us. Only one man can see them and, conveniently, he’s a policeman. With a caravan full of clues and information, a house-trained monster side kick and a secret he cannot tell his partner (at work or home), he fights monster-crime.

What’s not to love?

Well, a thing or two.

Lack of communication

I’m easily frustrated by plot lines that hinge on lack of communication. Much of the tension in the arc of Grimm comes from the fact that Nick can’t tell his girlfriend, Juliette, or partner, Hank, about his new abilities. There are a couple of times when that causes serious issues. Maybe I’m a romantic fool, but although I get why he wouldn’t want to tell his partner, I never really thought he had a good reason not to tell Juliette.

Weak world building

Nick can see monsters, but only when they “lose control”. Then their monster faces pop out of their human faces. A nice effect and all, but, you know, it feels hookey.

The set up is classical: our hero knows nothing, lands in a new world and finds a guide to show him (and us) the ropes. It’s worked in lots of other programs so it could have worked here. Nick’s get into the Grimm world really quickly but the supporting characters are left outside and the separation between the two worlds feels as forced as the special effects. I don’t buy it.

I watched the first season but I’m not going to watch the second.

Now I need another series to follow. Something with great characters and interesting goings on. Suggestions?

The Edinburgh International Book Festival: things to see and do

Last year, I went rather wild at the book festival. This year, I’m taking it easy. I’ve only booked events at the weekend or in the evening and I’m only doing one workshop. But what a workshop.

1-2-1 Writing Clinic

According to the program, the 1-2-1 Writing Clinic on Sunday 19th is for new writers who wants advice from professionals who have been through it all. To help the adviser, we’ll be asked to submit materials in advance. I’ve got 15 minutes with a publisher at 10:15 in the morning. I’ve got 15 minutes with Francis Bickmore, Editorial Director for Canongate Books. I’ve prepared my one-page CV and am choosing between a number of candidates for 500-word writing samples. 15 minutes isn’t long so to get the best out of my time, I’m thinking hard about the questions I want to ask and, of course, writing them down.

People to see

If the weather is good, Charlotte Square is quite a nice place to just hang out. You don’t have to have tickets for things to have a cup of tea, browse the book shop and do a bit of author spotting. (But don’t crowd the author’s yurt. It’s bad form.) The festival programme has all kinds of fun and I’m attending a couple of debates as well as author talks. Here are the events I’m particularly looking forward to:

Things to do

Then there’s Unbound, the free event in the Spiegeltent. They offer all kinds of booky fun in a relaxed atmosphere and for no cost other than what you spend on drink. I’m hoping to go to:

  • Wednesday 15: Magic Words – Illicit Ink at unbound! Fun times with magicians.
  • Friday 17: Literary death-match. I’ve never been to one. It’s time to change that.
  • Friday 24: Swimming and Flying, a talk by Mark Haddon.
  • Monday 27: It will be all write on the night… To close the festival brave souls will finish an audience-lead story on the night. No time for edits here. R. A. Martens and George Anderson are part of the fun.


Inspiration: the quiet beauty of Tove Jansson’s moomin books

When I was a kid, I loved The Exploits of Moominpappa*, a cheerful adventure and coming of age story a self-obsessed moomin troll. I read it several times a year and loved it’s quirky characters and beautiful pictures. As I grew up, other moomin books won me over. I still read them: there are not books just for children.

My favourite moomin book now is Moominpappa at Sea. On one level – the pappa’s – Moominpappa at Sea is about a midlife crisis. For the other characters, it is about other things: loneliness in particular, finding out who you are and where you fit. Jansson lets her characters do what they need to do to deal with the situation they find themselves in, however random their actions might seem. These are flawed, vain and silly character whose very humanity makes them lovable. If I could write characters that were that real, I’d be a very happy writer.

Tove Jansson died in 2001. She’s one of the few authors, like Kurt Vonnegut who passed away in 2007, that I actively miss, even though I never met them. It’s odd to me that you can miss someone you’ve never met, but I do. It’s a sweet melancholy, a regret, I suppose. And that makes sense because the thing about the moomin books that speaks to me is the melancholy that permeates them. Yes, there are cuddly critters and they are outrageously cute at times, but at the heart of Jansson’s writing there’s truth. It tells us that life is beautiful and sad in equal measures. That is something I think we need to be reminded of, regularly.

Moomin kuva, from Wikipedia.

* The version of the text I know and love is not the one that was translated into English, unfortunately. I wish they’d issue a new translation because the revised book is better than the original and as a number of really nice touches.

The mostly silent story telling of Shaun Tan

A few years ago I worked off Broughton Street in Edinburgh. My closest decent café was Artisan Roast, which roasts and serves the very best coffee that Edinburgh has to offer. (Too bad I prefer tea.) One day, I found this book there, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. It was a tale of emigration and immigration, 128 pages long, all illustrations.

It was amazing.

In The Arrival, a man leaves his family to go abroad and start a new life. Eventually, they will join him, but before they can he has to find somewhere to live, a job and learn to understand the new place he’s in. The beautiful pencil drawings show a world similar but also very different from ours. I recognized the emotions and fears of anyone that has to go somewhere new, be it a new school, job or country. Learning the ropes, making friends, finding a place in a new context takes time and courage.

I have since acquired most of Shaun’s back catalog. His illustrations are beautiful and his words, when he uses them, open new worlds and new perspectives.

Shaun Tan spoke about The Arrival and his other works at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. He told a story – Eric, a lovely tale inspired by an exchange student – and explained that he writes with a very particular audience in mind. Shaun writes tales that his brother will find acceptable. The story doesn’t have to be simple, but the language must be. This straightforward voice works very well with the other-worldly illustrations.

I’m trying to emulate two aspects of Shaun’s story-telling: the simplicity of his language and the other-worldliness of the world he draws. My writing lacks the lyricism of Shaun’s drawings but I want my stories to take place in a world similar to his. A world very close to ours but different enough that anything can happen. And I try to tell them simply.

Recently, I sent the first story I wrote with the principles of simplicity and other-worldliness in mind to my mother. She really likes it. She likes it so much she thinks I should illustrate it.