How Pieces of You and People You Know End Up in Your Characters

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Luckily, for some people I know, I don’t write a lot of villains into my novels. As I do in real life, I try to not let nasty, uncaring, judgmental, ridiculously competitive and fake people seep into my world too often. However, in the short stories I write, I let them in because I don’t have to deal with them for too long, as short stories are just that—short. However, writers have to allow what we learn about people to grace the pages of our stories and illuminate our characters; these sketches of folks should glide into our stories seamlessly. As well, the same is true with the goodness and quirkiness and loveliness of people.

For example, in my recent novel Inn Significant, I texted my friend Charles and told him that Miles was based on him and my husband—kind of a conglomeration of the two. He had no idea, and was flattered by the depiction of Miles in the book. There are people in real life who can bring liveliness and charisma and charm to the characters you are writing—so let that unfold as the characters are made up of characteristics that you see in people.

As for us as writers, how much of ourselves do we let into our stories? I have a wild imagination, so I tend to consider the character and what he or she likes and what would make them that way. For example, in Inn Signficiant, the main character is Milly, and she narrates the book. How much of Milly is in me? Well, let’s see. We both love living near the water. We both are writers and like to read. We both love cruiser bikes, though hers is pink and mine is seafoam green. We both love our families. We both know what true love feels like. We both know what heartbreak feels like. We both value a pretty simple life. We both have a sense of humor.

What we don’t share is that she has felt tragedy, as she has lost her husband in a horrific accident, and goes through a bout of depression. And while I haven’t felt loss like Milly (thankfully), I can imagine its intensity, devastation, and profoundness. I also understand what feeling depressed is like, as I bumped up against that a few years ago during a trying time in my life, and one in which I learned a few lessons about good friendships vs. yucky ones.

As writers, we have to allow these things we know and understand to help develop our characters. We do allow bits of ourselves to show up in our characters, and if it’s not a bit of us, then it’s a collection of bits of others that we know, have interacted with, have been friends with, or maybe even have had a falling out with along the way.

The main point to writing character is to believe that they are real, and then make others believe that they are real. Make them so authentic that people completely understand them. That’s not to say that the characters might not drive readers crazy at times or make them shake their heads and say “what?,” but we need to put realism into our writing.

Plot is wonderful, but people have to be able to identify with the characters.

Years ago, I read the book The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbaugh. I read this book because I was writing Baseball Girl, and I wanted to read as much baseball fiction as I could before I published anything. While Harbaugh’s writing is absolutely beautiful—a true work of literary splendor—the characters were, to me, wholly unbelievable. I couldn’t relate to any of them, and truthfully, only finished the book because I was so deep in at that point, that I needed to see how it ended. But I didn’t enjoy it that much, if I’m being truthful. I desperately wanted to connect with any one of the five main characters in the story. I wanted to find some of their actions redeemable, and yet, I came up just feeling this way about it: meh.

My goal is not to have anyone say meh about my characters. I keep that in the back of my mind the entire time I’m writing.

So don’t leave yourself out of the equation when writing strong, memorable, and relatable characters. You have the potential to bring so much to the story.

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Stephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of Inn Significant, Baseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

 

 

Make Us Care

While there are so many insightful tips on how to tell a good story, at the core of it all is to make the reader care. In a 17-minute speech on TED, Mr. Andrew Stanton, Academy Award winning screenwriter for such films as “Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story,” and “Wall-E” who also voices the character “Crush” from “Finding Nemo,” explains his wonderful tips on storytelling.

Writers of all kinds should take heed of Mr. Stanton’s advice, which he explains with examples. As my class took notes on his wisdom, I wrote them all down as well; it’s a reminder and a usable checklist that writers can use refer to when evaluating their own work.

His tips are as follows:

1-Make us care (about the plot; about the characters)

2-Make us a promise (deliver us something meaningful)

3-Make us work for our meal–writers do not have to spoon-feed your readers/viewers (we can make our own decisions)

4-Carry a strong theme throughout (the story should always, in some way, be cognizant of the theme)

5-Make us wonder (asking questions is a part of curiosity/intrigue)

6-Use what you know (use your own experiences to tell a good story)

Take a look at his video. I’m so thankful for for Ted.com and the ability to share valuable information we can all learn from.

(Warning: The opening joke in the video is not PG…play it when your young kids are not around).

 

 

 

 

Fictography #14 — A Love Letter From Mitchell Henry of Kylemore Castle, Connemara, Ireland

Kylemore Abbey. Photo Credit: Emily Maranto
Kylemore Abbey. Photo Credit: Emily Maranto

 

/FICTOGRAPHY/ def. — The intersection of photography (submitted by readers) and fiction (written by me!).

How spectacular is this castle? Over spring break, a group of students studied abroad in Ireland. One such student was Emily Maranto, a senior at Stevenson University. Emily has taken several writing courses with me, and as well, she’s got a special place in my heart because she was fortunate, as was I years and years prior, to intern at the Orioles. The students had so much fun on their trip, and last weekend, I was told the story of Kylemore Castle and its history, once the home of Mitchell Henry who built it from 1863-1868, and ended up not spending much time in it after the death of his wife, Margaret, in 1875. She had contracted a fever while in Egypt and passed away at the age of 50. Since 1920, the castle has been the home to Benedictine nuns, who have resided in it ever since.

Much like writer Philippa Gregory writes historical fiction (I loved The Other Boleyn Girl and couldn’t put it down), I decided to try my hand at historical fiction, writing from Mitchell Henry’s perspective after the passing of his wife. Much the same as Joe DiMaggio placed a rose on Marilyn Monroe’s grave every day after she died, I imagine Mitchell writing a letter each day to his dearly departed Margaret.

I hope you enjoy today’s fictography, and thank you, Emily, for the sensational photograph.

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For ease of reading, the printed text of the letter is below:

My Darling Margaret,

It’s been 212 days since your passing. The days grow increasing longer, my dear, as I must endure your interminable absence. I find myself walking the paths we’ve walked together, taking a turn in the garden where your assortment of roses have awakened in glorious blooms, the colors so vibrant, my dearest, they heighten the senses, and I am constantly in awe of their perfection. Each petal is so delicate, yet so sure of its posturing that I almost feel neglectful of them as a whole, for I cannot possibly examine each one individually. And so I admire them as a whole, as you would have done, pleased with their expressions and their vivacity.

The garden has become a place of peace for me, as I find myself lingering with a book or stopping to pray and ask for forgiveness. Had I not insisted on you journeying with me to Egypt, I might still feel your presence, nestled next to me, hearing your glorious laugh as you tickle the nape of my neck—a gesture I so miss and will likely never experience again.

The way that the children look, still devastated and missing their mum, breaks my heart, and so, my dear, I have decided that I will not live here much longer. I will go back to Warwickshire and work in Parliament where I will throw myself into my work, allowing an occupation I find rewarding to envelop me with the hope that it will be able to mask a broken heart. I am not confident it will work.

Progress is being made on your church; I have set it slightly off the main grounds, one mile from Kylemore, where you and I will rest in peace together, forever, into a sleepy yet blissful eternity.

How I long to see you one day again, my dearest, loveliest, sweetest Margaret.

Yours Faithfully with Love Forever,

Mitchell