Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Secrets to Character

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Was it --dating myself now--Readers' Digest?---that had a feature called My Most unforgettable Character? I used to read Readers Digest at my grandmother's house, and come to think of it, learned to type by copying out articles. Well, mostly jokes.) And I built my word power like mad. (Tell me you remember the old Readers' Digest.)
But as writers, now, we are in a constant focus to make sure our characters are real. A Scout Finch, for instance. Kinsey Millhone. Claire Starling. Moe Prager. Jack Reacher. All those people we talked about in Tuesdays mash-ups...we can talk about them, right? Because we know them.

 How do you do that? At Love in Murder this year, I finally met Gail Lukasik, whose books have gotten raves from PW and Kirkus. And she's got some wonderful ways of making sure our characters are not cardboard.

Three Writing Exercises in Search of a Character
            Writing characters that grab readers’ imaginations is as crucial to a mystery as a compelling plot. My belief is that no matter how compelling the plot is unless it is filled with memorable characters, it’s empty.
            So how does a writer create memorable characters? First you have to know your characters intimately. This is especially important for main characters. The more you know about your characters, the better you will be able to draw them on the page in a believable way. And believability is key to creating memorable characters.
            Here are three writing exercises I’ve used to teach characterization as well as in my own writing. These exercises help you get to the heart of your characters.
 Eye of the Beholder
            Find a photograph of a person that speaks to you. Write a physical description of that person, including looks, clothing style, facial expression, and any personal nuances such as gestures and gait. The physical description should convey as much about personality as appearance.
Ask yourself what does your character’s physical appearance say about him or her? Don’t we make assessments of people based on their physical appearance even before getting to know them?
              In creating my nineteenth-century protagonist for The Lost Artist, I began with a portrait photograph I found in an antiques shop. Written on the back of the photo were the young woman’s name, and the words “Carter School pupil from 1921-1923.”
What initially drew me to her were her sad, intelligent eyes, her expression of longing, and her mouth that seemed to hold too many teeth. But as I studied the portrait, I saw that the artistry of her dress belied the plainness of her face. Her choice of necklace that echoed the lacy scalloped edged collar told me she had an aesthetic eye. Though the young woman lived in the twentieth century, her face, expression, and artistry fit my nineteenth-century protagonist Emily Lord Braun.
Starting with a physical description of your characters often leads you to discover aspects of their characters you hadn’t expected. What you infer from characters’ physical appearance speaks volumes about who they are.
Object Lesson
            The objects that we value say a great about who we are. The same goes for our characters. This exercise approaches characterization in a different way, letting an object define the character.
            Choose an object you’re drawn to. When I give this exercise in class, I buy inexpensive items from the dollar store. Then I have students choose an item and write a character sketch of the person who owns this object. I instruct the students to have the character talk about his/her thoughts and feeling about this object.
            This exercise aided me in creating my present day protagonist for The Lost Artist Initially I was having trouble envisioning this character. All I knew was she had to be an artist because the character had to be capable of interpreting the four murals that are the key to finding the sixteenth-century art treasure. Finally I settled on a performance artist mainly because performance art is edgy, which interests me. And here’s where the object lesson helped. My protagonist Rose Caffrey’s performances involve evocative, overly large dresses that she wears in public spaces. Not only are these dresses part of her art but they also define her entire life. When she’s kicked out of her Halsted Street apartment, the only things she’s frantic about are her dresses. That devotion to her art made her the perfect protagonist to embark on a dangerous quest to find a lost art treasure.
 Say What You Want
            Another way into a character is through dialogue. For this exercise give your character an overriding desire. Have the character write about this desire using the prompt: “The only thing I ever wanted was ... 
            Set a timer for 20 minutes and freewrite in the voice of the character. Not only does this exercise allow you to deepen your characterization, it also helps you develop that character’s unique voice. I find that doing a freewrite in a character’s voice gets the critic off my back. Similarly you could have your character write about a fear or a secret.  All of these emotions are rich soil for characterization development.

HANK: So fascinating! Reds, have you tried any of these? Who's your most unforgettable--fictional--character?

Gail Lukasik is the author of the Leigh Girard mystery series, which is set in the resort community of Door County, Wisconsin. Kirkus Reviews described Death’s Door, the second book in the series, “as fast-paced and literate, with a strong protagonist and a puzzle that keeps you guessing.” Her debut stand-alone mystery, The Lost Artist (Five Star/Cengage, June 2012) received praise from Publishers Weekly who said, “Rose’s present-day sleuthing and the intertwined tale of the original homeowners command our interest until the final page.” Before settling on writing mysteries, she was a ballerina for the Cleveland Civic Ballet and a published poet.  Her website is:

The Lost Artist is available at and Barnes and Noble



  1. Good advice and an interesting post. Thanks Hank.

  2. Gail, your Carter School pupil has a pert little nose, too. That photo makes me want to learn more about her. What a great writing tool, as are the others you suggested. Thanks for the topic today.

    Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak is one of the most interesting, and complex, characters I've encountered in fiction recently. Another one is the Reverend Claire Fergusson. I love reading strong female characters.

  3. I think our "favorite" authors ARE our favorites because they understand the necessity of their characters being firmly grounded in reality . . . because they keep those characters rooted in the reality they have created for them so that we find them exactly the way we expect them to be when we read their stories. It is this continuity that helps to make them . . . and the writing . . . so compelling.

    Love that the little ghost picture of Elaine has moved itself over to today's post . . . .

  4. Hey Reds! Weren't we gonna offer a FREE book to commenters identifying the location of the "ghost" picture of Elaine? Because of COURSE that was our brilliant plan all along... ;) and don't we just LOVE this new version of Blogger!?

    PS - Special thanks to sharp-eyed reader Joan! Now back to our teapot...

  5. Thanks, for the comments. The Carter School pupil photograph was a real find.

    Hank, I do remember reading my mom's Readers' Digest and the unforgettable character section. Fun reading for a kid.

    Elly Griffiths's Ruth Galloway is a new favorite of mine. The amateur sleuth, archeologist is quirky and intelligent.

  6. Hank, yes! Readers' Digest, also at my grandparents' home, where we went every Saturday evening. Loved the Word Power.

    Another great character: Ayla, from Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, and subsequent books in the Earth's Children series.

  7. One thing that works for me is to have the villain justify the killing in his own words. This helps me get inside the head of a killer.

    Great tips today.

  8. Grest post! I use the photo and journaling for my own characters. Had not thought of the object exercise, though. I'll be trying that next.

  9. SO. Late today! Had early AM appointments.. now rushing in.

    Gail--you were actually a ballerina? I am so--lost in admiration. I'd love to hear more..and about your new book, too!

    The ghost of Elaine? I didn't see it..oooh.

  10. These are terrific exercises--thank you Gail! Doesn't it seem like we always we need new ways to think about pushing our writing, as the old ways get a little stale?

    One of my fave characters (outside Jungle Red of course:) is CJ Box's Joe Pickett. He seems utterly real to me!

  11. I thought I was the only one who was seeing The Ghost of Elaine. I guess I'm not "special" after all!

    (HATE the latest version of Blogger! HATE IT HATE IT HATE IT!!!)

    Some characters from mysteries are so real to me that I have nightmares that something will happen to them before they can solve the mystery. Most recently this happened with Kate Shugak.

    Deb Crombie's characters, major and minor, stay in my mind long after I finish reading the stories in which they appear.

    I could go on and on. ALL of you JRW writers have written characters that stay with me.

    And Linda Rodrguez: Skeet and Brian feel like people in my own life.

  12. Deb, I do love your blogger rant!! ANd I'm with ya...

  13. Oh! I see it! The ghost of Elaine. WEIRD.

  14. Linda, sorry I misspelled your last name. I do not know what is going on with my fingers these days! Rodriguez - see, I CAN spell it. (I have misspelled my own name in my posts but managed to catch it before hitting "Publish".)

    Hank, I vividly remember those Readers Digest Features! I remember wanting to know some of those unforgettable characters. I had a teacher - I think in Seventh Grade - who used the Word Power articles in class with us every month.

  15. Gail,

    Thanks for sharing with us today. My youngest sister was a brilliant writer in high school and college. Sadly, disease has robbed her of the ability to be articulate. Between physical and cognitive disability she can no longer function on her own and is now in a nursing home. A long time ago I gave her a notebook and encouraged her to write. She hasn't done much with it, though. Recently, I've been thinking that maybe the two of us could do writing exercises together. Your description of using objects or photographs as writing prompts with your writing students has given me an idea for something she and I can do with each other.

  16. Deb, I think that's a great idea to do the writing exercises with you sister. What I like about these exercises is that they suit all levels of writers. I once had a woman attend one of my workshops who kept saying she couldn't write. After doing an exercise or two, she was hooked. I love when that happens.

    Hank, thanks for asking about being a ballerina and about The Lost Artist. I started ballet when I was four and danced with the company for about three years. After I left the company, I performed in musical theater until my knees gave out.

    The Lost Artist is a mystery/quest novel. A true labor of love. In a nutshell: When Rose Caffrey, a struggling Chicago performance artist, uncovers four nineteenth century murals in an old southern Illinois farmhouse, her quest to discover the unknown artist unearths buried crimes and secrets going back over four hundred years with the potential to transform American history—if she can escape the fate of the other lost artists before her.

  17. Gail, how fabulous! Someday will you show us photos? (I always wanted to be a ballerina, but Madame DeAnguera threw me out of class. At age 9! Another story for another day.)

  18. Deb, I agree..what a loving and wonderful idea..

  19. Deb, thanks so much! I'm glad Skeet and Brian live for you. If you're going to say such nice things, you can misspell my name anytime you want, sweetie!

    And I think your use of the writing prompts with your sister is a great idea! I use the photos prompt in the writing workshops I do for the kids of migrant workers and at-risk kids in the public schools here. I have a bunch of old photos I've picked up at thrift stores and yard sales and off the internet ( of people of all ages, races, activities, etc. I spread them out and have the kids choose one and write a poem or story (depending on the workshop) about the photo or people in the photo. I give them a sheet with a few questions to ask themselves about the photo to get them started. These kids write such heartbreaking stuff with such hope in the endings!

    It's interesting that the ghost of Elaine showed up today, as well. Hank, Blogger is an abusive blog spouse. Just sayin'. xoxo

    Oh, jeez! The captcha number photo is against a clapboard house and in the shadow. Time to try for another.

  20. There are some characters I miss when the book is over. I don't want to give up their voices. Whether I'd want them as friends or not, I see them as real people!
    My favorite writers (yes, that includes you, Hank) manage that magic!
    (and earn much respect from me ;-)
    The memorable character feature is just one of the wonderful things NOT in the Reader's Digest any longer, along with good pictures on the back cover. Even the Build your Vocabulary seems less intellectual, fewer and easier words than "in my day."

  21. Oh, no Hank. What could you have possibly done to be thrown out of class? Though my Russian ballet teacher Ms. Marguerite would suffer no fools. And I was terrified of her and her teaching stick.

    Mary, you're right about some characters you just don't want to let go of. When I'm reading a book with characters like that I try to read very, very slowly.

  22. Well, Gail...what I did, I guess, was to lack all talent. Madame took my mother aside, and said: "Mrs. Landman, you daughter is lovely, but she will never be a ballerina. I cannot teach her."

    Sigh. Oh well, it all turned out fine. I mean, can Maria Tallchief write a thriller? :-)

  23. Gail, The Lost Artist sounds intriguing. It sounds like it contains all the elements I like in a story. I need to look for that book.

    Linda and Gail,
    Thank you both for your encouragement and descriptions of how writing prompts hae been helpful in your workshops. It has bothered me so much to see this talented middle aged "baby" sister not using her gift. She has lost so much but I think she might be able to awaken her gift with some encouragement. I've also tried to encourage her to keep a journal in the past. It's time for the pushy big sister to say "THIS is what we're doing today." I brought it up to her again earlier this week,and she did seem more interested than in the past.

    Hank-Sister in Clumsiness:

    I love ballet but am way too clumsy to be a dancer of ANY kind. (Just ask anyone who has ever been brave enough to try to dance with me:-) Some relatives have been professional dancers,so there ARE dancing genes in our family; I sure didn't get them! When I was in my twenties I tried ballet lessons in the hopes that I would become more graceful. The instructor laughed a lot. My clumsiness has been really good for the physical therapy, neurosurgery, and rehabilitation medicine communities. I guess some of us are meant to be the appreciative audience! (That's where MY genes are!)

  24. You and me, Deb. We can dance our own dances.

    Tomorrow, another skill that some of us have, and some of us don't.

    Gail, so lovely to see you here! Hope our paths cross in person again soon!

  25. Oh, I am so late, so way too terribly late!

    Gail I love those exercises. I need to try the object description.

    Rhys, "... have the villain justify the killing in his own words. This helps me get inside the head of a killer." Oooooh, that is very scary. Must be something to it, then, right? I have to go try it now.

    Okay... why is that photo of Elaine in there!?

  26. Thank you, Hank for inviting me to guest blog. I'm sure our paths will cross again.

    Deb, Keeping a journal is an excellent way for your sister to start writing again.

    Thanks to everyone who commented.