In Memoriam

At a writing conference I attended a few years ago, James L. Rubart mentioned that one of his characters was based on a real person he knew. He took that real person, and without any changes, plopped him into his novel as a character. I don’t have the courage to do that to anyone I know. I figure I’ll make them mad somehow. But since it’s Memorial Day in America, this prompt is in memoriam for two people who had a huge influence on my writing, although I didn’t realize how much until recently.

Back in the Mists of Time

My maternal grandparents lived in Fairmont, West Virginia when I was born but moved to a small house out in the country near my hometown in Ohio when I was four. Their house saw some of my most treasured childhood memories: eating a pizza supper on Sunday nights and watching The Wonderful World of Disney, stopping by on a Sunday afternoon and settling down to watch a Tarzan movie with Grandpa, helping in their vegetable garden and orchard, holiday dinners, served buffet style, in the basement and the family gathering around a long plank table while a wood-burning stove provided cozy warmth. To this day, I can’t smell a pine fire without drifting back to Grandpa’s and Grandma’s basement. The smell of cooking onions does the same thing. Grandma was a wonderful cook and baker, and she always had onions cooking in some dish for a meal.

All those memories influenced my YA mystery novel. My main character Rae lost her mother and has just learned who her father is and is getting to know him and the rest of her relatives. Rae’s father, her half-brothers, and grandmother live out in the country. As I shaped their farmhouse, I knew I wanted it to be the haven I’d found at my grandparents’ house. The grandmother isn’t like mine, but she is a fantastic cook and baker. Most of the house’s features were pulled purely from my imagination, but the basement is very close to the one where we had our holiday dinners. It’s also a walkout basement with steps that lead up to a breezeway and detached garage, like at my grandparent’s place. On the family’s property are a garden and orchard.

But more important than the physical similarities, I want to convey to my readers the peace and joy we grandkids found when we visited my grandparents. They were always happy to see us. Always. This isn’t an exaggeration. We could drop by any time unannounced, and not once did they act like they had something better to do than to spend time with us.

After my sister and I were grown, my mom mentioned to her mom how much we enjoyed coming to their house, no matter what we did. Grandma was floored. She thought she was just fixing meals and we were just watching TV or helping around the house. So thank you, Grandpa and Grandma. The love you gave to us lives on. And I have a feeling when I get to Heaven, I’m going to bang in the back door, and you’ll both be there, Grandma cooking and Grandpa giving me a tight hug around my head.

If there’s someone you would to like write about in memoriam, please mention them in the comments below.

When a Character Turns into a Problem Child

When a character turns into a problem child, a writer wants to administer a serious time-out session.

I ran into this frustration while writing my YA mystery. My main character Rae belongs to an extensive, extended family. I decided to give her father an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother. The dad and his two sisters came to life early and easily. But Younger Brothers turned into a problem child. No matter what approach I took, I couldn’t develop him into an interesting character, one who would contrast with his siblings.

If you are faced with a character who turns into a problem child, try these four trouble-shooting techniques.

Change the Name

Naming characters appropriately is critical for me when developing them. If I give a bubbly character a name that somehow suggests a quiet, sensitive type, the character won’t work for me. But the name wasn’t Younger Brother’s problem.

Change the Face

This is the same as changing the name. Usually when I build a character, I start with a face that I’ve seen somewhere and that signals a certain kind of personality. Younger Brother’s face suggested a reserved, intellectual, but I had another character like that who was working well within the story. I thought maybe I just needed to …

Write a Scene with the Character

This technique had worked with Rae’ grandmother. I knew I had to have a grandmother, but she proved a slippery character, her personality assuming all sorts of traits as I tried to structure her in my mind before I began writing. Finally, I decided to stick her in a scene and see what happened. Pretty soon, Gram’s mellow, warm-hearted personality shone through, making her a nice contrast to her son, Rae’s father, who is a worrier.

But when I wrote a scene with Younger Brother, he became irritating, sounding whiny. So the only thing left to do was …

Combine or Eliminate the Character

I offed him in cold-blood with a a lot of relief. I simply didn’t need him. If I hadn’t already had a character similar to him, I might have taken his qualities and those of another character to combine them into someone new.

I think the reason I worked so hard to keep him is that I often create groups of four characters. I’m one of four sisters, so I understand how that group dynamic works. What I had failed to realize was that I already had a group of four characters. Oldest Sister married the neighbor boy, whom Rae’s father and sisters grew up with. So he’s like a brother, although an older one to Rae’s father. But I’ve had a ton of fun writing about how the brothers-in-law jab at each other.

Click here for more tips on creating characters.

Have you had a character turn into a problem child? What did you do to fix it?

Who Are These Characters?

I think it’s hard for adults to write from a child’s perspective. But that’s the challenge of today’s prompt. Who are these characters? My point of view character is the little boy.

“Give me big smiles.”

Sarah is really nice. Just as nice as Daddy said she was. I grin big as me and Tina sit on the front steps. But Tina doesn’t smile.

“Sarah said to give her big smiles,” I tell her.

Tina doesn’t listen. She just keeps staring at Daddy’s girlfriend. Tina isn’t friendly. I don’t know why.

Sarah puts down her camera and searches for something in her backpack. “I left my best lens in my car. Tina, here are my car keys. Would you get it for me? It’s in another backpack that looks almost like this one. “

Tina doesn’t move. She just stares. Then she turns around and runs into our house.

Sarah makes a funny noise and looks like she’s gonna cry.

I jump off the step and pat her hand. “Tina doesn’t like people. She likes cats, thought. She’d like you better if you were a cat.”

For more character prompts, click here.

Manage Minor Characters

Writers also double as casting directors. We ransack our imaginations and experiences for characters, hoping to match them to the perfect plot. We spend a huge amount of time shaping the main and major characters, creating backstories and constructing arcs for them (not arks, unless you’re writing Biblical stories). But minor characters are important too. I’ve found that’s true especially in cozy mysteries. One of the hallmarks of a cozy mystery is the enclosed community in which it takes place. It can be a small town, small business, or some kind of club, any group that consists of a limited amount of people. Adding colorful and fun minor characters spices the mystery and ensures that my setting feels real and isn’t just populated with a detective and suspects. To manage minor characters, I divide them into two categories: supporting and walk-on.

Supporting Characters

I classify characters as supporting ones if their function is to further the plot. In my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I needed to establish some backstory. I had my main character Rae discuss a mysterious fire and the disappearance of a woman with Barb, the director of the library in which Rae works. When I wanted to introduce a new character and didn’t have the word count or time to create a new scene, I made him Barb’s boyfriend. That gave him an excuse to come to the library and run into Rae. In both cases, Barb helped propel the plot.

Walk-On Characters

Walk-on characters don’t have to do more than help the reader feel like the story is operating in a real place. If I only write about Rae and Barb when I have a scene at the library, it gives the impression that they are the only employees, which would be atypical. I mention a few other employees by name as Rae works her shift to make the main branch of the Marlin County Library seem real. Since the library is located in a small town within a rural county, Rae knows most of the people who come into the library by name. I can write something as simple as, “I had to cut short my conversation with my cousin as Mrs. Zollars staggered up to the desk with her usual load of romance novels”, to give my novel the small-town atmosphere it needs.

Click here for a post on how to flesh out minor characters.

Readers, what stories have you read that had great minor characters? Writers, how do you manage minor characters?

Thumbnail Sketch for a Mythical Character

A thumbnail sketch for a mythical character presents so many possibilities. Is it a sentient being from a civilization? Or an animal? Does it live in our world or a fantasy world?

If the character is an animal, my sketch is:

Loyal, protective guardian

If the character is an intelligent being, my sketch is:

No-nonsense, determined ruler or soldier

What sketch can you come up with for this mythical character?

For more fantasy prompts, click here.

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