Archives for category: What Makes Your Characters Tick?

What do writers think about when they hurt their characters – throw them into a downward spin without a parachute?  Writers say they are not monsters, angry at the world.  Others say they stretch their characters to the limits, send them into the most miserable of places, only to worship their ascent back to humaness.  Would literature be of any value if we didn’t hurt the characters we love?  Make their weakness, vulnerability, and humility tools of self-destruction?

Two frogs fell into a bowl of cream. One didn’t panic; he relaxed and drowned. The other kicked and struggled so much that the cream turned to butter and he walked out.  Writers do put their frogs in bowls of cream and observe their descent or their survival.  Is it a game?  To sit back and watch who will self-destruct and who will survive?   Did Edward De Vere feel dread and worship for his characters?  From Eeyore to Norman Bates to Ma, characters suffer.

Who do they suffer for?

Here’s a suffering wife/mom/photographer from The Gold Fish Bowl

Yvonne curled up in the tub resting her ear on a towel she had rolled up.  Two noodles clung to her hair, and the crotch of her jeans were stained with urine.  Her face with mascara.  Ripped from the collar down, her blouse slipped from her shoulder.  A welt, like a river in a sunset meandered from shoulder to spine below a large tattoo in its first stage of design.  She didn’t want to leave the tub – cool and hard like armor.  Trying not to wonder where everyone was, she rocked and cried salt water puddles.  She had placed her hands under each armpit, so she didn’t have to look at them.

A siren sounded down the street.  There were two paramedics – Fran and Al – who rushed to the fallen man and followed procedures – introductions, questions, examinations.  They removed his glasses and comforted the boy.  Fran helped Lennon out of the trunk and scooped up the cat for the boy to hold.  She walked him from the living room to the kitchen and offered water. As Lennon drank, Fran’s attention dissolved into the walls around her.  She caught a glimpse of a mannequin dressed in a boa on a window sill.  A satin and silk quilt, pinned to the dining room wall, held a distinct collection of broaches.  Broken plates and picture frames lay scattered on the floor.  She had seen it before – two moments passing together, dinner and disaster. Then the business of bones and breakage.  She looked at the cat’s shirt.  The cat would survive, maybe be born again, but the boy.  He couldn’t live in trunks all of his life unless he became a magician.  After Lennon told her that sometimes he stayed with Bill and his wife next door, she asked Bill if he’d take Lennon and the cat for the night if it was okay with Ms. Conway.  Fran turned her attention to the cries above her – the suffering mother raw with regret.


A story is as great as the writer’s love for their characters.  When writers infuse these alter egos with their own lives, the novel becomes important because of this “visceral, under the skin, psychological connection”.   When does that magic moment strike, that moment when a writer can say they are totally in love with their characters?  It happens when  the writer knows more about that character than they do about a close friend or family member.  And that demands a deep commitment to creating a back story, not all of which will be used in the novel.  Have a look at the following list of must dos when creating character composed by Alan Rinzler:

Creating a Back-Story Life

1.  Know how your character speaks. In fact, speak the lines out loud to ensure the words capture an idiosyncratic style, background and accent–different from anyone else in the book.

2.  Have a portrait in mind of how the character looks, including height, weight, skin color, hair and posture. How they smell. Their favorite foods.

3.  Know how the character dresses from coat to underwear, even if it never appears in the light of day.

4.  Inhabit the character’s deepest feelings–both admirable and not, so long as they are authentic and true to the person’s role and experience.

5.  Understand their habits and skills, including special talents, obsessions, fears and aversions, traits found far beneath what the other characters in the book may perceive or understand.

It sounds complicated; it is complicated.  In th end, what are writers doing?  Getting to know themselves?  Finding acceptance and love to define them?  If readers love characters, do they love their creators?  But then again writers are writing about you.

What characters do you love?  Why?

Here are characters I love from Remains of an Afternoon:

“How can I buy you a seltzer if….if you’re holding a knife, psycho-like?  If you put it down, then we can get out of here somehow.”  The knife was suspended like a long metal beak of some robotic bird inches above her head and nobody could make him put it down.  Jane studied him – how he hadn’t changed in the four years she had known him.  Behind the weird bangs and chin tucked in as if trying to keep his neck warm, she saw the rare beauty in his face that was his mother’s.  She had seen a picture of this Mary, the tawny gypsy who at birth had been lodged on a town doorstep half a century ago.  Ricky’s full moon eyes were always glistening and reflecting.  A straight nose like a child’s slide in the park.  A crease in the centre of his full lower lip.  Like Mary’s – the Scallop Princess at eighteen, married at twenty, widowed at twenty-one.  In the old issues of her dad’s paper, before he bought it, Mary was there at the docks with a crowd of people waiting for any remains to return with search teams after the great storm of 1950.  Jane had that photo blown up.  Mary’s face large with disbelief and her round eyes fixed to with abandonment and new survival strategies.  Ricky is beautiful.  Weird and beautiful.  But not angry.  Not naturally.

Nervously, he clutched it more tightly.  “I can’t Jane,” he squealed.  His hand was cold and shaking with fatigue.  Misjudging the width of the blade, he brought it too close to his left hand.  In a micro-second, a fountain of blood squirted from his thumb joint.  The knife crashed to the floor.

Recently a student asked for tips on really getting inside their character’s head.  Charts are good – one for strengths and one for weaknesses.  You might know how they look, move and speak, but not how they feel, not how they hide, not how they get inspired.  Know why they move with slouched shoulders, or why they speak in a monotone, or why they look as though they stepped out of a chariot.  Hook up with your character in the day when you’ve got a couple of hours to step into their world.  Go prepared.  Chesterton said, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”  Here’s an exercise to get to know your character better:  assume your character’s identity and talk to a friend as your character would.  You’ll discover more than what you thought you knew.

Some character building from The Drowning of Margaret Hannagh:

Robert was right.  I had too much wine, not enough control and too much of a good thing.  But it would get better, even though my heart folded into itself when I saw Robert die before my eyes.  Holding me tightly he floated me to shore in the thick-moving current, and as I reached to stroke his face, a massive beam crashed through the waves, sweeping him away.  Our fingertips had touched like a flash of lightening, then he was gone.

I’ve always managed to nurture the reverse side of a warm heart – my heart.  It was easy for me to put it all behind.  Even while he was drowning, I was erasing.  After I made it to shore, I asked around for a carriage and found a willing man.  I gave him my wedding ring to unload the corpse he was carrying and drive me to our estate on Grand Avenue.  It even surprised me how the sound and smell of the river, as we drove away, assured me of my future, despite what it had taken that day.

I had the laundry maid burn my clothes and bathe me, dress me, and put fresh flowers in my room.  I had our housekeeper bring every business and financial paper and ledger she could find that my husband had kept.  I told her to break into drawers if she had to.  I spent the rest of the day and night reading and studying our business. And surprisingly, I made vows:  never to get drunk again, never to love anyone else but Garth Hannagh, never to undermine my own power, and never to let anyone tell me I couldn’t run London Oil.  I slept well that night and every night after that, until several truths wouldn’t stay silenced.

They haven’t found Robert yet, and I’ve been waiting too long for Garth to come to me.

Have a look.  Strike up a conversation.  Take a longer look.  Don’t be afraid of their eyes.  Look deeper.  Ask questions.  Listen.  The people sitting across from you are your new characters .  Have you asked them where they’ve come from, where they’re going to, why they’re hidden in the belly of a boat and have no luggage, why they’re clinging to each other?  Why the child can’t smile?  Will they ever have shadows again?  Your knowledge of them becomes their reality; their reality is what brings readers into your book and into their lives.

Here’s a sample of character detailing from The Gold Fish Bowl:

She liked the sounds of street cars.  The clacking.  The bells.  The passengers’ complaints.  She wanted to photograph legs – bowed, knobby, exposed, shiny, used.  In the aftermath I sit unwashed, and smell like Tiger Lilies on the wane after summer solstice.  She had written that on the front of a Foodland bill yesterday, and today saw some through the street car window.  She missed them, a sea of orange waves in her mom’s neglected garden.

She got off and walked south on Berkeley to his office and stared at the door.  Dr. M. Cane:  Psychology and Kinetics.  She stared, felt cold, closed her eyes and saw that woman, urine-stained, crouched in a bath tub.  Quickly she reached into her bag, and on the back of the Foodland bill wrote a note to Dr. Cane – another time, Yvonne Conway.  After sticking it in his mailbox she fled.

A man who had stepped out of his car rushed to meet her. “I’m here now.  Someone, where I ate lunch, had an allergic reaction, and I stayed to calm him.  I apolo…”

She fled past him, then north.  He found the note she left.

In a comfortable chair in his office he looked at the paper.  Tiger lilies on the wane after summer solstice?  He drew the paper to his nose, then made a call.  “Hi, this is Dr. Cane.  I apologize about keeping you waiting.  I’ve rescheduled you for Friday at two.  I look forward to meeting you, Ms. Conway.”

In creating villains, writers have the onerous task of building a person who is responsible for the protagonist’s growth.  If the writer is committed enough, the villain will be a three-dimensional nightmare whom we’d never want to marry, but whom we’d want to google now and again, just to keep us a safe distance from the dark side of business.  Moriarty, the White Witch, Mrs. Coulter, Tom Ripley, Hades, Moby Dick, Hannibal Lecter, Mr. Kurtz, Voldemort, Iago, and Alex Forrest are some of many villains who attach us firmly to their inescapable, immoral predispositions, inviting readers along for the ride.  And we want this ride, but only if the villain is worth our time, only if he imbues us with the need to examine our own intricate value system.  Readers get to ask themselves how they would handle the bad guy differently from how the protagonist does.  And that’s great fun.

Here’s a villain, Garth Hannagh,  from The Drowning of Margaret Hannagh:


There wasn’t a day that passed from early morning to late night that Garth Hannagh didn’t wish his wife, Margaret, dead.  He dreamed about it – waking up in a thrill-seeking sweat.  In his office he daydreamed about M.Os.:  arsenic, a pillow, a vertical fall, a blunt weapon.  Garth had never imagined a drowning, until May 24, 1881, Victoria Day.  He had no idea fate would deal him a river, a catastrophe, and an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.  He hadn’t planned on killing Margaret that precise day, but when he quickly assessed his dreams, daydreams, and the harsh reality of his loveless marriage, he let fate seduce him into fulfilling his death wish and acted like any man of war would.  Margaret had become his enemy and needed to be eliminated.


Garth sat on the edge of the cot.  The boy remained limp.  He lifted his hand, then let it fall.  He leaned in close to the boy’s ear and whispered, “If you wake and say anything about that day by the river and that black-haired woman, I’ll come for your mama and cut her up and feed her to the pumas.”   Amos’s eyelids fluttered.  Garth wasn’t expecting it.  He would have let the boy live in a moment of his own spiritual reinvention, but the boy’s eyelids fluttered in new horror – perhaps just enough horror to quicken the boy’s will to survive and to see justice served.

Like parents, writers have to learn to let go of their characters – give them lives, but let them live them.  If readers feel the writer’s presence, hiding and walking among his characters, they won’t trust him to create characters who live independently, outside of his control.  From the first breath a character takes and the first word she says,  that character should extend her thoughts, body language and most intimate conversations off the page, arms reaching out, saying, Come to mama.  Adult characters, young adult and child characters have this independent power to bring the reader into their lives, hold them there and keep them remembering them for a lifetime, but only if the writer knows them and trusts them to live beyond his control.

Think of a character, who became a person who became part of your life.  Thomas Covenant, Susie Salmon, Hagrid, Annie Wilkes and many more were conceived, born and bred in worlds that defined them, separate from their creators’ first sketches.  What made them memorable was their writers’ ability to get inside their heads, understand the full capacity of their power, then leave them to wield it.  Their writers let them act, react, feel, think, imagine, prophesy, and speak as unique individuals whose creators were never thought of once, not once, from the first page to the last.

Here are some characters locking readers into their worlds:

From Born in Utopia 


She let anger take hold.  Her first day of freedom was a lie.  She fumed from room to room in the empty condo, and knew where he’d be.  She found him at a waterfront café.  Rigidly, she stood beside him until he looked up.

He threw up his arms in innocence.  “What?”

Forcefully she pulled a chair away from the table and sat on its edge, straight-backed, and leaning across the table, put him in her line of fire.  “Coward!”

Patrons heard her branding him and turned away.

“I’ll order a coffee for you.”

“Don’t you dare leave this table.”

“Keep your voice down.”

“Why did you do it?”


“Coward!  Just admit it!”

He looked away.


When he faced her he felt as estranged as he had before.  “I slipped up.  So what?”

“You left Gwened without any food.  She was hungry.  You ruined the whole trip.”

“And how did I do that?  I wasn’t even there.”

“We couldn’t get off the boat because of the dogs.  Gwened was frightened and hungry.  The dogs didn’t even know who I was.  Why didn’t they know me?  What did you do to them?”

“I just forgot to lock them up.”

“Liar!  You’ve changed Utopia.  It’s not safe.”

and from Into the Attic and Out:  Book One of Seeds

“Where’s everyone?”  He slid past her trying not to touch the chair that had the ghost in it.  The ghost she liked to sit on and put her arms around and talk to when he wasn’t listening.

“They’re all out.”  She moved sideways so he could get into the kitchen.  She watched his sullen face, watched him in the middle of the kitchen staring at the floor.  “Are you okay?  You look sad.  It’s Saturday.  You usually don’t have time to look sad.”

“I’m just thinking about things.”

“Uh huh.”  She waited for the “things” to bite into the cloud-like silence.  She wished she had kissed him when he came into the mud room, but he stopped kissing her when Jake died.  And he stopped walking the dog after that…didn’t say good-bye to it when they put it down a year later.

“Like what things?”

He found air in the bottom of his lungs and pushed it out – a long sigh, like a sullen breeze that matched his mood.  “I’m thinking about us.  We’re growing older.  Soon we’ll be moving away from one another.”

“Hey!”  She left the lap of the ghost on his favorite chair and moved to the kitchen table.  “Maddy’s eight.  I’m not planning to send her into forced labour for a while.”

He sat opposite her.

“I know you never talk about personal things and that…that numbs me.  It leaves me less maternal than I want to be, but whatever’s bugging you, I want to know about it.”  She knew it wasn’t only his fault.  She knew sometimes – too many times – she found more comfort alone with her plots and characters and alone with the strangers she brought home, than she did with her real kids.

“And I know I’m not always here, so you keep to small talk and school talk, but I’m slowly, very slowly finding my way back.”

“Forward I hope.”

“Okay.  Forward.”

You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge one for yourself.”  Creating fictitious characters starts with dreaming them up, but what makes them memorable is how we hammer and forge their destiny.  Your character’s destiny is dependent on the adversity you confront him with,  and the power you assign him.  Lincoln stated, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  Have a look at these characters and remember what they suffered and what power they accepted or refused:  Jay Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, Holly Golightly, Lolita, Scarlett O’Hara, Scout Finch, Duddy Kravitz, Alexander MacDonald, Offred, Kurtz, Grendel, Yuri Shivago, Harry Potter.  And there are so many more memorable characters because they are not caricatures, but people.

Personality can open doors, but only character can keep them open.”  In order to keep your readers locked into your character’s destiny, they have to want to be part of their lives, like an unseen friend or enemy.  Their actions, reactions, and conversations have to make your character an irresistable spectator sport.  Here are some samples of character hammering and forging:

from Carry Me Home

Jean’s father, Mr. Scotty Lisgar, had been indicted on May 1, 1956, found guilty on September 10, 1956, and imprisoned in the Kingston Penn on September 12, 1956, five days after his daughter, Jean, returned to the Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute to teach chemistry, zoology, math, and a host of indictable language crimes committed by fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen year olds.  By November, the term had become insufferable for Jean and her aura of misplaced grace.

The year before her father’s arrest, she had been voted the most popular teacher and had role-modeled herself into the hearts of many hero-worshipers – students she had enfolded under her pedagogical wings and teachers who saw their youth reclaimed in Jean.   Male and female staff members fantasized about her, and now this – half smiles, stretched over half brains.  They had become automatons turning away from Jean, a pathetic, genetic mistake whom they had once called Sunshine because of her pink, luminous cheeks, fresh with young womanhood.

One word, ‘guilty’, had changed her whole life.   She resolved not to stay under those circumstances.  She resolved to resign and seek employment in a place where the blood of her father and mother-gone-loco, running in her veins, didn’t matter.  She handed in her resignation against the protests of the director of education and her principal who defended her, but could not persuade her to fight harder.

from Things to Come

Three months earlier when Jesse knew the Exodus Bill would pass like gold-laced pee, he made a decision to leave Carmen, his wife of twenty five years.  The wife-turned-politician became married to all that was phallic in the city and was devoted to keeping its virility clean and strong.  It was Carmen who spear-headed Salvation Exodus – the systemic purging of the homeless inToronto that had become stained with human soul loss.  Jesse shuddered at Carmen’s dominance, her climbing on him during his REM time or in the hot tub. He hated her power, her imagination, her rancid self-gratification.

He made preparations to escape Carmen’s philanthropic bullying.  He took a quilt his mother-in-law had made and pissed on it, empowering it with anti-social stink stains.  He stored it in a large IKEA bag in the garage, along with oversized clothes Carmen made him keep as a reminder of his former obesity.  He had smeared rotten food groups on them and partnered them with the quilt until Good Friday came, when he ran away and found a grassy patch beside Ajax and Cleo in the heart of downtown.  Faking sleep he let the evacuation team work its magic, assuring him softly that his life would soon be a whole lot better.  They labeled his bag, “Man with the tree of life quilt.”  He didn’t bring a keepsake, didn’t leave a note, and threw his ring down the toilet.  Anonymously he left Toronto for a sanctuary north by northwest.