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


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.



Book Review: The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding. Photo credit:
The Art of Fielding. Photo credit:

Once again, I’ve crafted a review to share with my Feature Writing students as they prepare to write a creative critical review of their own. Here are my thoughts on “The Art of Fielding” as promised.

The Art of Fielding: Book Review

It is rare for me to be at a loss for words, to be left with the inability to articulate why I was left feeling blasé about a piece of work that The New York Times Book Review called the Best Book of the Year for 2011. And, it is even more rare for me to be overly critical of a writer, especially one who spent ten years crafting his book to get it just the way he wanted it. In fact, for that I have only praise.

Yet, the overwhelming sentiment I was left with at the end of Chad Harbach’s novel “The Art of Fielding” was only one of disconnect and confusion. Disconnect because I had a hard time identifying with any of the characters and their actions, and confusion because I am left scratching my head and continue to have difficulty explaining why I was just left feeling blah about it.

As for the latter, there is no doubt Harbach can write. Some of his prose is melodic and lyrical and deeply emotive. His poetic sentences are captivating, and truthfully, my perception of the novel up until the halfway point was quite favorable. I was curious about the characters, but then, swiftly—as swiftly as a hitter can swing a bat at a 95-mile an hour fastball—he lost me. In baseball terms, it was a swing and a miss.

The shame of these sentiments about the way the plot unravels is that I’m a baseball girl. I worked in the sport on a professional level for a Major League Baseball team for 13 years. In other words: I wanted to like it. I want to like all things baseball.

The novel takes place at Westish College, a fictitious college in the mid-west, and centers around five main characters: Guert Affenlight, the president of the college; Pella Affenlight, his daughter who has returned from California to Westish to pursue her degree after a broken marriage; Henry Skrimshander, the Westish baseball team’s prodigal shortstop who is being courted by the big leagues; Owen Dunne, a member of the baseball team who is a scholar and is gay; and Mike Schwartz, the seeming glue of the baseball team and Henry’s mentor. These five characters’ lives become intertwined, and at the heart of it all are growing pains, psychological problems, love affairs, and a bit of scandal. Each one, in some regard, is “finding” himself or herself.

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

It was. And then…

Sometimes novels are crafted so well that you don’t mind when the characters begin to unravel and do something off-course. Those types of things surprise us as readers. However, Harbach tosses us a few unlikely curve balls, but they are too predictable in an all-too-convenient way that leaves us feeling a bit cheated, like when Sammy Sosa got caught with a corked bat in 2003.

“The Art of Fielding” is 512 pages long. As previously mentioned, Harbach’s prose is pleasant to digest, and my confusion was never about how skilled a writer he is. Ultimately, the challenge for me to like the characters and to find something endearing or redeeming in them. This was at the crux of my disappointment. To be honest, I cared more about the characters page 250 than I did on page 512.

Harbach’s literary knowledge shines through in this book. Obviously a fan of “Moby Dick,” Harbach cleverly weaves President Affenlight’s love for the novel into the storytelling and plot of “The Art of Fielding.” The symbolism of “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville leaves us wondering how it will play into the climax and resolution, and about three-quarters of the way through the story, we understand why it was an integral part of the story.

I can’t say that I was fully disappointed in this novel. It had its moments. It’s not a book for everyone, as the themes are deep and complex, but yet, I found the characters only so likeable as the plot unfolded. But maybe, just maybe, that was what Harbach intended for us to see: that they were flawed and damaged and clouded by who they are, their futures, and their own goals.

As you can see by my analysis, I’m still perplexed by it.

Did I like it or not like it?

The jury’s still out.

* * *

738 words

Crazy Names in Fiction

The Art of Fielding. Photo credit:
The Art of Fielding. Photo credit:

Hello, Readers. I’m back from vacation, but only 3/4 of the way through “The Art of Fielding,” which I had hoped to finish on my trip. I guess that’s a good sign—we had a lot of fun on vacation, and only a limited amount of reading time. Ironically, I had started it pre-move and during the end of the semester like a dummy. I can’t get anything done during those busy and hectic times, so I tabled the novel. I am now making my way through the final pages.

The jury’s out on how I feel about this particular piece of work by Chad Harbach. I like it, I don’t like it, I love it, and I don’t love it. It certainly has its poignant moments and thoughtful insights. I’m reading it because I’m making my way through some current books on baseball and other sports since I am writing a novel with baseball as the backdrop. However, sometimes when I read fiction, if the names in the novel are too “out there,” I immediately lose interest in the characters. If their names are unbelievable, then how can I believe in them? Let me toss out (no baseball pun intended), some of the names in “The Art of Fielding”—

Guert Affenlight.

Pella Affenlight.

Chef Spirodocus.

Adam Starblind.

Little Loondorf.

These are some of the chosen character names. Authors do this sometimes: they choose names that are memorable because they are so different. (I don’t know a Pella or a Guert personally, but if you do, please let me know).

We talk about character names, my fellow writers and I, and we like to pick names that are easily identifiable, that’s true. We (writers) want you to connect with the characters. But I can guarantee you, I will not name my characters in “Baseball Girl” anything too crazy. It’s really the “character” of the character—his or her makeup—that defines who they are in your story.

How do you feel about wacky character names? And, additionally, have you read anything fictional lately with unique main character names?

I know there are many, so please feel free to share.

The New Thing: Writing About Baseball (And love. And death.)

baseballfieldIt’s quite a combination, I know. Taking the subject of baseball and rolling it into a novel women will want to read. Women’s fiction…contemporary romance…and baseball? Who is she kidding? one might ask.

Here’s the thing: I’m finally up for the challenge.

At about 35,000 words already written for the novel (BENEATH THE MIMOSA TREE was 59,000 words), I am making some serious headway with the main character I like, but who has some issues to overcome. Incidentally, she works in professional baseball.

And that’s about all I’ll say right now.

baseballheartIt’s taken me years to write a novel with baseball as one of its “characters,” just as New York was one of the characters in “Sex and the City.” With my background as a front office employee who worked in the sport—and for a major league team—I’m hoping to bring realism to this fictitious story.

Besides, I can’t watch “Field of Dreams” or “Bull Durham” or “League of Her Own” one more time. I’m about to read “The Art of Fielding” and “Calico Joe.” But here’s my thought: it’s time for something new and different, something contemporary and fun and poignant. And from a woman’s perspective.hearts1.jpg

I’m excited for and committed to this challenge. And I’ve got some stories to tell.

Here’s hoping I can hit it out of the park.