Monday, February 28, 2011

Character Creation--Putting it all together

Even with a framework for character creation in fiction it isn't easy to build compelling fictional characters. Having a guide definitely makes the job less challenging, though.

Summarizing the character creation posts of the last few weeks:

1. To nudge inspiration, begin your character creation exercises by writing a description of a real or fictional person and embellish where necessary. (See post on 1/17/11 at

2. Show rather than tell facts about a person. "George was stupid." vs "The teacher explained four times the process of opening a jar of peanut butter, but George still did not understand the procedure." (See post on 1/24/11 at cavewriter.)

3. Compare and contrast to fully illustrate a character fact. "He moved as fluidly as Michael Jordon executing a perfect layup." instead of "He was graceful." (See post on 1/31/11 at cavewriter.)

4. Choices characters make give readers insight into their hearts. Read the post on 2/7/11 at to see how three different people react to a bus accident.

5. Whether or not a character lives up to his belief system can tell readers volumes about who he is. The preacher and the pregnancy illustration of this in the Cavewriter post on 2/14/11 shows exactly what I mean.

6. The hearts of characters are clearly illustrated by the way they treat others. Remember the example shown in last week's post at Cavewriter regarding Melanie and Belle from "Gone with the Wind?"

These six helpful ideas in character creation should go a long way in aiding writers struggling with characters as they hammer out their stories.

These points may also inspire fresh questions in the minds of writers such as "Do I use all of these ways of building characters in all of my works of fiction?" "When do I use them?" "Do I use them on all of my characters?"

Naturally, the writer is the creator when it comes to his or her stories. When, how or if writers use these techniques is totally up to them. I would suggest, however, that it might be most effective to use the type of character illustration which best suits the scene being written.

I'd also suggest interspersing these techniques throughout the story, using the most appropriate technique for each part of the story.

One more suggestion--as writers flesh out their characters before they write a word of their stories, it might be a good idea to consider answering questions about each of the character's belief systems, life choices they've made prior to the beginning of the story, how they'd treat another person given a certain situation, and things of this nature. It's very helpful to know the characters' hearts as well as their overall personalities, their connections to other people and the way they look.

Remember, the better a writer knows her characters, the more believable they become to readers when they react in ways true to who they are as they face the challenges presented to them in the plot of the story.

Still sound complicated? As I said, character creation isn't easy, but all the work necessary in building believable characters is worth the effort. It truly is.


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

Monday, February 21, 2011

How Characters Treat Others

Words of wisdom such as "Actions speak louder than words," "These people pay me lip service" and "Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you" come to mind in thinking about this week's discussion of character definition. We're talking about defining fictional characters by the way they treat others.

Melanie Hamilton Wilkes pops into my mind when I think of a character being defined by the way she treats others. Remember how kindly she treated the prostitute Belle in "Gone with the wind?" Remember how generously the prostitute treated Rhett, Ashley and Dr. Mead when they were trying to escape the Yankee soldiers after having burnt out a dangerous encampment?

In both of these instances the attitudes these characters have toward fellow human beings goes a long way toward defining the hearts of Melanie and Belle.

In my book "Stephanie's Surprise" there is a married couple who has taken in the mentally handicapped sister of the wife. Showing this act of kindness in the early 20th Century when mentally handicapped people were often hidden in shame or institutionalized makes these folks look as though they've behaved heroically. The protagonist, Dr. Aaron Wesley, however, discovers the poor woman has been badly treated, and her sister and brother-in-law have taken her in merely to get their hands on her monthly stipend.

Showing readers the hearts of characters by revealing how they treat fellow human beings, especially in private, is highly effective in defining fictional characters.

I hope your week is beginning to show signs of spring.


Fran Shaff

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Characters and their Belief Systems

Whether or not characters in fictional stories live up to their belief systems tells readers a lot about what kind of people they are.

Consider fictional character Alvin Pastorini, a beloved preacher in Mapleton, a beautiful fictional Midwestern town.

Preacher Pastorini has a lovely, kind sixteen-year-old daughter who has become pregnant.

As a respected Christian pastor it would seem this man's reaction to his child's situation would be one of compassion.

Readers would expect this beloved and respected man to stand by his daughter and help her find Christian solutions to her challenges. Some of her options would include raising the child on her own, marrying the father and raising the child with him or placing the child for adoption.

What if, however, Reverend Pastorini secretly forces his daughter to have an abortion because he doesn't want his congregation to learn his daughter behaved immorally?

What if his daughter is so emotionally scarred by being forced into the abortion she turns to drugs and the preacher hides her away in a clinic and pays for her treatment with church funds?

Every character in every story has a belief system. As writers we can more thoroughly flesh out our characters as "real" people by showing how they live up to their belief systems.

While it may be adequate for a writer to simply tell a reader, "Reverend Pastorini was a hypocritical, cold-hearted, thieving SOB" the reader gets a much clearer picture of who Pastor Alvin Pastorini is when she sees first hand how the reverend does or doesn't live up to his belief system during challenging times.

Accountant Annie who considers herself an honest person but frequently takes home office supplies can't hide her true nature from the observing eyes of readers. The "Thou shalt not steal" sign on her desk fails to keep her on track with her belief system.

Second string Steve who secretly works after hours with first string Frank night after night to help him become the best quarterback in the conference is a shining, heroic star in the shadows of the readers' minds. Steve obviously lives by the simple motto written on a piece of notebook paper and taped to the inside of his locker door "Team work."

Showing whether or not characters live up to their belief systems is an excellent way of illustrating characters in fictional pieces.

(For more on character development, see previous posts on use of comparisons, actions and illustrations in fleshing out fictional characters.)


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

Monday, February 7, 2011

Defining Characters by their Actions

What a person does in secret defines who he is.

I'd wrap punctuation around this statement if it were the exact quote, but I don't think it is. Nevertheless, you know what I mean.

We've all known someone either personally or politically who preaches the importance of helping those in need publicly then gives little of his time or money privately to do as he claims to advocate. We may want to call this person a hypocrite or duplicitous or maybe a dirty, rotten scoundrel.

This week I'm continuing to offer more ways for writers to define the characters in their fictional writing.

Last week we talked about using comparisons in character illustration; the week before we discussed using examples. This week we're looking at defining characters by their actions.

Here is a simple telling of a fact about Jack: "Jack is a dirty, rotten scoundrel."

To better describe Jack's private convictions so our reader can get to know him intimately we might define him in this way.

"Jack stole $60 from the blind man's donation cup when the bystanders, upon hearing a crash, turned to see the aftermath of a bus accident."

While Jack was robbing the blind man blind, Carey was doing something else.

"Carey had never had a day of medical training, but when she saw the bus accident, she went immediately to the passengers to offer whatever help and comfort she could."

While Carey was offering aid to accident victims, the driver of the bus had her own agenda.

"Louise left the driver's seat as soon as she felt the bus hit the fire hydrant. She figured if she ran off and hid for a few hours the alcohol content in her blood would no longer be high enough to warrant another DUI conviction."

Jack was a jerk.

Carey was a caring person.

Louise acts irresponsibly.

Characters are so much better illustrated when writers show who these people really are at the very core of their beings by using the characters' actions to define them.

Hope your week is a good one!


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author