A Few Handy Tips for Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

January 13, 2018

I’ve been invited to give a talk (and conduct a workshop) about writing fiction at a local writers’ conference in Chattanooga on January 20. Over the years, from crafting my own fiction as well as editing other people’s manuscripts, I’ve learned a thing or three about creating realistic characters.

When writing fiction – whether your particular vehicle of choice is flash fiction, short stories or novel-length fiction – every author should keep some basic elements in mind, not the least of which is how to develop believable, three-dimensional characters.

Years ago, at a writing workshop I attended in Connecticut, our instructor led us through an exercise in creating detailed character profiles. The queries she posed ranged from our characters’ physical attributes to relationships with parents, and from childhood experiences to favorite and least-favorite things. Here are some of the items from that list:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Eye color/hair color
  • Hometown
  • Family structure (parents/siblings/extended family in the home?)
  • Relationship with parents
  • Occupation
  • Strengths/weaknesses/fears

 

Over the years, I’ve expanded the list of questions to ask my characters; in fact, some of them have balked, saying it’s approaching “interrogation” status. Nevertheless, here are some additional things to consider when rounding out a character:

  • What is his favorite color?
  • What is on his bedroom wall?
  • What does he like to do on his day off?
  • What does he suck at doing?
  • What must he have at the grocery store?
  • What does he refuse to eat?
  • What is his guilty pleasure?
  • Where won’t he be caught dead?
  • What is his best childhood memory?
  • What is his favorite musician/band?
  • What are his hobbies?

 

Once I’ve compiled a profile for each character, I’ve got a handy reference guide for when I’m wondering whether, for instance, Gary would ever order anchovies on his pizza (not a chance; he’s a sausage-and-mushroom guy) or if Marc would have far to travel to attend his class reunion (again, no; he lives about 20 minutes from Danbury High). I tend to get less detailed and picky with secondary or tertiary characters, but I still know their basic backgrounds.

However, it’s not enough simply to identify each character’s likes and dislikes; you must know their motivations, as well. After you’ve completed your character profile, ask these questions to get to the heart of your central character’s raison d’être:

  • What does he want more than anything?
  • Why must he achieve this goal?
  • What’s standing in his way?

 

You might end up never divulging any of this background information in your finished work (and this is especially true with flash fiction), but it’s vital to know about your characters’ history, drive and motivation, so you can write their story – and their dialogue – effectively.

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Reflections on Two Years Since Mom’s Death

April 25, 2017

Tomorrow will be two years since Mom died. She’d languished in the nasty clutches of Alzheimer’s disease for a little more than eleven years and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit her eventual passing was as much a relief as it was wrenching.

Through the ensuing weeks, I was fortunate to have many family members, friends and, yes, even clients, around to support me. My husband and I relocated from Connecticut to Tennessee a year and a half earlier, so I wasn’t even nearby when she passed away… and it took us two days of driving to get back there. Along the way, I kept in touch with family and friends via email and text. I also found myself borne up on the prayers and support of dozens of Facebook friends. Aside from a few moments that stand out in my memory, much of our time there is a blur.

At the wake, we saw streams of people – many of whose faces I recognized but whose names I don’t recall. It was a steady flow of friends, neighbors, coworkers, clients, Dad’s coworkers, a state Senator, the daughter of one of my brother’s colleagues (from a job twenty years earlier), my husband’s former business partner, his office manager, our former pastor, our favorite waiter from our favorite Chinese restaurant (yes, really!)… UNICO members, my parents’ longtime friends and even their longtime friends’ grown children.

Afterward, Cousin Maria invited everyone back to her house, where she’d amassed a feast that could have fed 50 people. Socializing was the last thing I wanted to do, but I went because it afforded me a way to reconnect with family after being so long away. What a blessing that was! It was a little like being in a beehive – a constant buzz of activity – surrounded by people who’d known and loved me my entire life. And there’s something oddly comforting about being amid people who all have the same nose. Then there was the food. Oh, the food! Pasta, meatballs, chicken… every manner of Italian food, on platters piled teeteringly high with assorted deliciousness. Did I mention that Maria must have, in a former lifetime, been an Army cook?

If you asked Maria why she did that, she’d probably say, “We’re Italian. We feed people.” But it was more than that – what she did was a tremendous ministry to our family. She reached out and took a tangible step to help when we were immobilized by grief.

If you’re on the periphery of a loved one’s grieving process, there are concrete ways to help. There’s always a plethora of hugs and the obligatory “I’m so sorry” murmurings. And everyone says, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Trouble is,  grieving folks are so numb at this point, they can barely think of what they might need, let alone conceive of articulating it – or reaching out to ask someone to help.

Fortunately, Jodi Whitsitt (a recently widowed mother of three) has provided a baker’s dozen of specific, real-world ways to help a grief-stricken loved one.

What are some of the ways you reach out to the newly bereaved in your life? Please share in the Comments section below.


The Ubiquitous @

March 7, 2016

Aside from its obvious email application, how many of us have ever really considered the “at” symbol – @? It’s been around for centuries, yet it was largely ignored by all but those in the math or accounting arenas much of that time. For years, this unassuming character languished above the 2 on our typewriter keyboards, snubbed by virtually all except folks who included it in their grawlixes.

With the advent of electronic communication surfaced the ingenuity of one Ray Tomlinson, an American computer engineer (who, incidentally, passed away over the weekend at the age of 74). In 1971, Tomlinson drew the humble @ into the spotlight as a central figure of his recently developed “electronic mail” system.

Of course, you can also use the @ symbol to send electronic roses to your sweetheart… —-^–^-<@ – but you’ll have to kind of squint and look sideways to make it look like a long-stemmed rose with thorns.

As for what the ubiquitous @ is called in other languages, check out this article. Personally, I prefer the Armenian ishnik and the Danish snabela. What about you? What’s your favorite other-language moniker for @?