I have always been a sceptic about writing character sketches or profiles for a work in progress. It simply wasn’t for me. I didn’t need index cards of physical descriptions and personalities. I reminded me so much of school when teachers assigned busy work for research papers.
Traditional character sketches have you fill in a questionnaire for each of your main characters:
While this might have you thinking and digging deeper into your characters, I still find this elementary. However, when I reached a recent plot wall, I needed something to help me navigate my floundering narrative and thin character development. I blocked off an entire Sunday and went to work creating my own version of character sketches for sceptics. I find these wholly more useful and allowed me to think and examine my characters, plot and narrative more closely. I developed connections and expanded on my novel. This process can also be used for short stories, plays, screenplays and novellas.
Role in Story Think of this as their story occupationand how they relate to the protagonist and others within the story. This can be a simple line or two.
Character Background A quick summation of where they came from. If you were meeting a friend for dinner and telling them about this character in 2 minutes, what would you say about them.
What does the character want? SUCH AN IMPORTANT QUESTION. Even secondary characters want something. If your character doesn’t want something, question why are they there. It can be a literal want or a figurative want. It can be multiple ones, but try to get to the essence of what is driving them. This answer can be as long as you need it to be, but get to the point quickly.
What is the main situation the character finds themselves in? Many events or actions can happen in your story or novel, but think of the situation more as the conundrum, the problem or the mystery that needs to be solved or sorted.
What is the character’s habit and mannerism? Sometimes, it’s worth it to take a sentence or two and think about your character as a person. Are they mild mannered, a snake or does she like to go for swims in the ocean at daybreak?
Internal Conflict(s) At least one conflict that the character endures within their own mind or within themselves. This is an emotional question or a conflict of their own making or between themselves. Make of it what you wish.
External Conflict(s) A little more self-explanatory. The main conflict or conflicts that are at play from outside forces. What is getting in the character’s way that is not themselves?
Additional Notes An optional area for breathing room or if you didn’t have a place in the answers above. Maybe additional questions for yourself.
Try to answer every point (1-7). This is especially helpful if you’ve run up against a plot wall or have run yourself in circles.
First drafts inevitably give me angst–fear, dread, misery. They generally start off snappy, whimsical, full of life and dreams but at some point all those bright lights fizzle out and it becomes work. I do not believe in divine inspiration for my work (stone the witches who do!). At some point, I write myself into a plot wall.
Instead of staring at the same page/sentences/chapter over and over again, it’s best to try something different and break away from that first draft angst.
Start with a blank page Okay, this is a bit of a cheat because I do this every time I write. EVERY TIME. But really, try it. You will feel freer without yesterday’s words and ideas tethering you. Maybe also consider starting from a completely different place in your story or novel. Who said you have to write chronologically?
Find the plot I write first, ask questions later. Which is great to get a word count and to have the story flying but often the dreaded plot wall happens. This is terrible if you are penning a longer work like a novel or novella. Try an outline. Really, try it. I hate index cards. Hate. Them. But do what feels right to you: whether that is something super organised or a mind map.
Skeleton The first draft doesn’t have to be organ meat and flesh. It can be small scenes, vignettes, notes–as long as it gets you to the end. Writing in chunks is a-okay. If you’re stuck on something, stop it. Move to a new scene or character and write a chunk, then another chunk.
Get to know your characters Traditional character sketches have never been my bag (gag me with a spoon), but I’ve come around to character sketches, in a sense, during a recent plot wall. It let me think clearly about the plot and negotiate certain scenes. I asked myself questions about the characters and tried to answer them the best I could in regards to the story, plot and how they relate to the other characters.
Sprints Block off a day or half-day and dedicate it to writing. It doesn’t have to be good writing or anything like that, but set a target (word count, chapter, plot outline, character sketches) and write in sprints. You’ll be amazed how much you get done and how much you don’t care if it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writing. It will be writing! As an example: write for 30 minutes, take a 10 minute break. 30 minutes, 10 minute break, so on and so forth. Adjust as necessary. If you have an accountability friend to sprint with you, the more the merrier.
Lockdown life has been a difficult time for so many reasons for everyone. At the beginning, concentration was a rare bird and I was happy to find a Netflix series I could bare to watch.
But reading and writing has returned for me, and I think it has for a lot of other people as well. During this time, beginners have also turned to writing. So for both those newbies and those longtime veterans who may feel stuck, I’m offering suggestions for the writing tools that I use that help me bash out thousands of words.
These recs are also either free or low cost, so hopefully something or a mix can be within everyone’s reach.
Scrivener: This is the classic writing tool for writers. It is powerful software that can be used for all sorts of projects: book length and short story manuscripts, scripts, dissertations, you name it. I also use it for multiple drafts of articles and all sorts of editorial projects. Find what you need it for and don’t get bogged down in all of its super powers. £/$ – Free Trial available
Scapple: Mind mapping. A recent find. When your notebook doesn’t cut it anymore. £/$ – Free Trial available
OmmWriter: Elegant distraction-free writer. My favourite part about this is the typewriter key sounds every time you type. You can make it silent, have ambient sounds, different keystrokes or a combo. It’s a simple word processor with no grammar/spell-check and I always have a high word count when using it. £/$ – Interactive demo available
Pure Writer: This is another distraction-free writer, but with a bit more oomph. I also have a Chromebook that I use when travelling around (travel–how novel). As much as I love my Chromebook, it doesn’t support Scrivener. So I need something similar as Google Docs (or the like) just doesn’t cut it for me when it comes to creative writing. It allows you to organise much like Scrivener but is a simple text editor. There is also a note taking aspect. I set the typewriter feature which greys out all previous lines, which allows me to only focus on the present. FREE (there is an upgrade, but for now, the Free version is fine for me)
Writers’ HQ: This is not software, but an excellent resource that I found during the lockdown period. During the best of times, they run in-person retreats to motivate writers towards their targets, but these past weeks, they’ve hosted free online writing retreats. I highly recommend these. I’ve written thousands of [messy] words but I’ve still written more than on my own. Also, WHQ has many other resources that they have thrown online. Free resources (if you have the cash to spare they also have monthly or annual memberships)
Are there any tools you use for creative writing and productivity?
The official trailer for Shirley, the new film releasing everywhere on VOD on June 5, is available. For the love of all that is Shirley Jackson, watch it, watch it again, mark June 5 on your calendar, read some tarot and wonder who those 14 people are that put a thumbs down on this trailer on YouTube.
It might appear a bit upbeat to choose such a colourful photo, but I figured a little whimsical joy would benefit us all. But don’t you worry! These three podcasts that I’ve been totally digging during lockdown are dark and spooky, and at times, downright horrifying.
This is the podcast we all need right now. Host Caroline Crampton’s voice alone is making this strange dystopian nightmare of real life a little bit easier to get through. According to its tagline it is “the podcast that unravels the mysteries behind classic detective stories.” I’ve always thought that people with a rosy nostalgic look of decades past were a bit sideways in their thinking and many of these episodes prove it. So many people of the last century were up to no good with conspiracy and poisonings galore. There was plenty of real life fodder for Agatha Christie and her compatriots to pluck from when penning their page turners. With 36 episodes and counting to choose from, simply start from the beginning and you won’t be disappointed.
Perhaps, I am alone in this but I always maintained that I would never consume anything more about the Black Dahlia case. That was until a friend sent a recommendation about this podcast. I read the description and was still immensely sceptical. I find what was done to Elizabeth Short beyond horrifying and even though it was committed over half a century ago, it still scares me, sending chills down my spine. However, this is one wild and frightening ride. It makes a beyond convincing case for who the murderer was (the police at the time also had their sites on this person) and it also interviews the family members, who were traumatised in the aftermath. It is a truly Gothic horror.
This is a monster story if there ever was one. The Italian justice system is a notoriously baffling and inconsistent one, and it doesn’t disappointment. When a serial rapist preys on tourist women in the city of Padua it is up to the women themselves, along with dogged Italian journalists, to catch him. He is slick and often evades punishment. The storytelling evokes anxiety in this real life penny dreadful.
Even though these 3 have different projects, they all have gripping narratives, evocative storytellers and wind through the world of dark tales.
It’s been awhile since I did a call for my newsletter. I am planning to ramp it up with some interesting curiosities, books, articles and notes. I’ve been making a list! It’s as easy as popping your email address into my GDPR compliant sign up form right over here.
Please leave a comment if there are any topics you would like more of, too. Things have been very quiet lately. I suffer from chronic migraine which is a very unpleasant condition, but I am hoping to find some good days ahead to satiate my curiosities. If you’re feeling particularly generous, check out my ko-fi page (even if it’s simply for a gander).
I hope everyone is as happy and healthy as one can be during this strange time. If you are finding an interesting way to keep busy or sparking creativity, please leave a comment, too.
Sitting printed out in my stack of unread articles has been “Upstairs’ downfall: The decline, death and afterlife of the English country house in five ghost stories” by Lewis Hurst at Sublime Horror.
With the London gloom and the chilly air, I have finally had a chance to bundle up and find a quiet moment to read through it. It was a pleasure to learn of five new ghost stories that were not on my radar; especially ones touching on crumbling greatness.
I am currently reading Sarah Waters’ The Little Strangerso it is perfect timing for this supplementary article.
I’ve recently been made aware of the concept of working in smaller chunks of time or in small chunks of project with little rewards at the end of small chunks. This is meant to ease that feeling of becoming overwhelmed and counter-productively not finishing anything. It is a bit of difficult task with it being much easier said than done (next personal struggle to tackle is the fact that not everything has to be perfect the first time around).
But anywho, I ordered Emily Carroll’s newest graphic novel When I Arrived at the Castle as a little treat for myself while finishing up this extended project that I have been the one unhappily extending.
Description via Goodreads:
Like many before her that have never come back, she’s made it to the Countess’ castle determined to snuff out the horror, but she could never be prepared for what hides within its turrets; what unfurls under its fluttering flags. Emily Carroll has fashioned a rich gothic horror charged with eroticism that doesn’t just make your skin crawl, it crawls into it.
*This post includes an affiliated link to support good writing.
The British Library offers a taster article by scholar Ruth Richardson about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the influence in Shelley’s day of grave robbing. It’s a light intro that many readers probably know in regards to Shelley’s life and the origin of Frankenstein (a game played in Geneva for all participants to come up with a suitable ghost story), but the article also frames the era of grave robbing and mass bodysnatching. Her own mother dying soon after childbirth, this could have been an illicit activity that Mary Shelley constantly thought over: