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.

Finding new markets: tools of the trade

Last year, I wanted to get four pieces of writing published. I only managed three. When I analysed possible reasons, the most obvious one was this: I didn’t send anything out for six months.

Not everything you send is accepted, far from it, but if you don’t send stuff, it can’t be accepted. I wish there were pixies that flitted about looking in drawers and scanning hard drives to find pieces whose authors were too shy to submit and moved them from obscurity into the sunny gaze of  a willing publisher. But it doesn’t work like that. You have to be your own pixie.

Storing 1s and 0s – I need a new way to back up my stories

This year, two people I know have lost everything they were working on due to computer problems. A. lost her PhD when her netbook decided to pack it in, and G. lost all his writing projects when burglars nicked his laptop. It made me very grateful that I’ve been storing all my writing – including Scrivener product files – on Dropbox since last year. I’m getting network storage for home to back up and archive to but that won’t keep me entirely safe: last year, H. lost a bunch of things she was working on when her server died. She was lucky: it could be retrieved so it was a temporary loss.

So far, my strategy has simply been to store everything on Dropbox. That way, I have access from my desktop and laptop, and from anywhere else (other people’s computers, usually). Cloud storage solutions break, though, not often, but they do. Hence my plan for local network storage. A germ of paranoia has taken root in me so I think I will also store printed copies of finished stories. It feels sensible to have hard as well as soft copies. Hard copies are surprisingly resilient: I have a whole arch file full of stories I wrote as a teenager, and I recently read a story a friend of mine photocopied and mailed to me since only the printout remained.

Digital is not generally viewed as a suitable long-term preservation archival surrogate for print. It is currently regarded more as an access medium.
Digital versus print as a preservation format – expert views from international comparator libraries, British Library

Everything I write starts its life in digital format, either as a bunch of ideas and notes in Evernote, Scrivener drafts in Dropbox, or even notes on my phone. I use paper, but a lot of what I write on paper I either throw away or transcribe. I’ve been writing using digital means since I was 17 when I kept a Pascal diary in Computer Science instead of paying attention at lessons. Those early oeuvres are no longer available to me. They are stored on media that haven’t been used for years. Never mind 5.25″ floppies – none of my current computers have a 3.5″ floppy drive so I can’t read the many disks I so carefully filled and labelled at university and the first few years that I worked. It’s not a big deal: there’s nothing there I need, or want, particularly. But it makes me aware that the stories I write today might be difficult to access in 10 or 20 years’ time.

Technology changes. So although I use digital means of production, I’m going to take a leaf from the British Library’s book and start storing paper.

NaNoWriMo week three – we have developments, of sorts

NaNoWriMo 2011 participant badgeThis week I made a number of important changes. Not to the plot, as such, but to how I work.

First, I took a little time out every day to make sure I knew where I was going. A little bit of planning here and and there, a plot item or two. It gave me a list of scenes that needed to be written, making sure that I always knew had something that I could write. Waiting for ‘inspiration’ is a great way to get nothing written.

Half-way through the week I changed the tool I use to write with. I’m testing Scrivener because it now comes for Windows. (And it was recommended to me.) Previously, I’ve only ever used Microsoft Word to write and a combination of paper and Evernote to keep track of ideas and research. Even after years of working with Word I know it’s not the perfect tool for long documents. It’s not bad, it’s just not perfect. I’m hoping that Scrivener will make it a little easier to move sections around. That would save me lots of time.

I had a weekend away and learned that I still don’t have motion sickness but can write comfortably in the front seat of a car. I could only write two days out of three but managed to cover the word count for Saturday on Friday. So far, so good.

Last of all I changed the goalposts. It’s a good thing to do on a Monday morning. My target is now 65,000 words. As long as I write at least 2,100+ words a day for the next nine days, I will get there.

Tally at the end of week three: 43,751

Have story, will submit. But where?

To get published you have to commit pieces to publishers. To start with, I want to get a short story published by someone who pays. The money isn’t really important, but the fact that I get paid is. Anthologies and well established magazines rate higher in the publishing stakes than my grandmother’s literary website.

I consider myself a pretty good Googler, but finding places to send submissions to turns out to be rather more complicated than I thought. Good thing that there are tools and websites that makes it easy for you.


  • www.ralan.com
    Ralan lists a large number of websites and magazines that take submissions. You can filter by genre but you’re left scanning alphabetic lists of potential submissions. Luckily the summaries are comprehensive.
  • www.doutrope.com
    Duotrope is a little more structured than Ralan and offers a fancy interface for searching. Learning what you can search for might take a while – I find either nothing or everything. If you find it useful, consider donating some money too them. It’s a great service and it’s free to use. (I’ve done my bit. And a little more.)
    You can use Duotrope to track your submissions and responses. The aggregated response time data provide a guide to other writers.

Learning a new language

There’s a lot of new jargon to learn with submissions. A whole new language to learn. The joy! Luckily, it’s one you learn quickly. Many of the terms are self-explanatory although a re-submission* wasn’t what I thought it was. Until I started looking for places to submit I didn’t even know I wrote speculative fiction. I wasn’t aware of this catch-almost-all super-category that fits both the mild horror and urban fantasy stories I write.

* It means submitting something’s that’s been published somewhere else rather than submitting the same story to the same place more than once. Which would be a crazy thing to do.