by , under writing

I swam on my ideal writing machine a bit more (normal people would sleep on it) and came up with what I really want from a thing that keeps track of stuff in my WIP. This is what I normally do in my head, mind. Also on pieces of paper that I use as bookmarks (and find months or years or decades later when I reread the book) and in files that get lost somewhere in the depths of my file system. Even if I do set up a proper character database, I tend to lose heart at some point because (a) I have to design it top-down, knowing what will be in it before there is anything to be in it, and that feels inside-out to me; (b) it’s one more thing outside of the actual writing to keep track of, and (c) I don’t start doing it at an early still manageable stage (mostly because of (a)) so it’s more than I can manage by the time I feel that it might be useful. And also (d) because I don’t use databases daily so I have to install and make myself familiar with software first, and I tend to either give up because it’s more complicated than I want, or get so interested that I forget what I was doing it for and end up messing about with the software for its own sake. This isn’t helped by the fact that there aren’t any sensible templates for a database that do what I need, at least not that I have found. So I keep everything in my head, creating inconsistency at every step. (Well, not quite every step but YKWIM.) Overlapping partial lists, people who figure in one scene and could be re-used but aren’t, people who disappear because I forgot they existed.

Anyway, remember the attendance manager?

expanded attendance manager

Click to enlarge

The attendance manager is tied to the work-in-progress. It can be tied to a whole project, like a trilogy or a series, with the same characters/locations/McGuffins. It does some of what I need, but not all.

  • Characters, locations and objects can be labelled Main, Secondary or None.
    This is global: you have to decide whether a person, place or thing is Main for the whole project. It helps, but not much, that this isn’t set in stone, it can be changed as many times as you like. I’d like at least a local option that can override the global one, so a character can be Secondary in Part I and grow to Main in Part II. Or (instead or as well) a configurable label, and/or more tiers than three.
  • Characters, locations and objects can be labelled None, Protagonist, Supporting, Neutral or Antagonist. (I’m not sure I see a difference between None and Neutral, and I think Neutral rather than None should be the default.) Again, this is global, and here it’s even more vexing because the thing I’m working on has one progatonist, at least two co-protagonists, several levels of supporting and antagonising (is that a word?) characters, and a cast of extras some of whom are not at all neutral (like the Order of the Sworn on the protagonist’s side and the regulars of the Vixen on the antagonist’s). I want more categories, and to define my categories, and it would be nice if I could colour-code them. Green for protagonists, blue for supporting, red for antagonists, brown for antagonist-supporters, etcetera. Configurable with sensible defaults, ideally.
  • Summarising: I’d like cascading options/labels: scene overriding chapter, chapter overriding part, part overriding book, book overriding project.
  • There are only Firstname and Lastname fields for a character’s name, and they get swapped round in the French way. I’m sort of used to this by now but it’s too constraining if you’re not writing novels set in modern-day France. One single field for “Name” would already be better. I could of course ignore either the Firstname or the Lastname field entirely, but somehow that doesn’t feel right.
  • I’d like a way to indicate, ideally searchably, the point-of-view character of a given scene. (Hmm, I can do that in the scene naming. It’s a hack, but probably a sensible one.)
  • I’d like some way to indicate characters who are only mentioned in a scene. At the moment I don’t put them in ‘attendance’ because they don’t actually, well, attend. Ideally also a way to keep track of whether they’re only ever mentioned, or are really in attendance in other scenes.
  • A way to find all scenes a character occurs in and/or links to other scenes a character occurs in.
  • All other stuff about the character or the place or the object has to be done in the notes field. I can live with that, but it would be nice to have a way to link characters to other characters (Maile, Hinla and Sedi are Halla’s daughters; Rava is Loryn’s sister and his enemy) and to link objects and places to characters and vice versa (Loryn made the cabinet and the writing desk for the queen; Erian belongs in the Temple of Mizran; the Order house contains every person labelled “Order of the Sworn”).

I’m not sure if I really want to conceive of something I’m writing as a database, with the text itself as just another object. I think I’d rather have a database associated with the text, with pointers/links from the text to the database and pointers/links within the database– I don’t know database speak well enough to use the correct technical terms. I considered a wiki, but got bogged down in researching wiki software, everything I needed seemed either to be bloated and top-heavy or too simple for what I was trying to do. The most obvious pitfall I can see is that a structured database might impose structure– that I can’t invent a character without deciding what kind of character it is, and once I’ve labelled it something, feel that I can’t or may not write it as anything else. Highly flexible configurability should take care of that.

Another pitfall, of course, is that I’ll get interested in the structure itself and fail to do any actual writing. Plain text files lend themselves much more to just getting on with it. I might get into databases and devise the ultimate character database… well, let’s not go there for now, I’ve got a novel to write and another to revise.

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