I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pearls: Turning Insistent Questions into One-of-a-Kind Characters

by Delores Topliff    

Like Harriet Beecher Stowe's character Topsy, sometimes our characters "just growed."

After moving 1800 miles from western Canada to Minnesota, I wanted to write more. My first step? Taking a children's literature course to gear down my college-teacher brain for less-complicated storytelling.

One assignment required developing a character sketch, but who to focus on? I recalled a foster girl entering my 6th grade class one November, who then disappeared during Spring Break. That tall girl, who was my size, started punching me in the restroom one day without provocation. (Nobody won.) Years later, I realized her blows were an effort to communicate. I wished I could find her and befriend her.

I searched for her without results. She may have married. Or, like other classmates, passed away far too young. But I couldn't get Mildred out of my mind. My "what ifs" wondering about her soon prompted me to write a character sketch based on her.

What I knew of Mildred soon blended with my own life experiences and those of young people I've know and taught through the years. Possibilities, imagination, unique character traits -- all combined to grow into someone I knew and mostly liked. She was still recognizably Mildred -- but with added elements of many other girls, as well. The more she came to life, the more I learned from her. In the process, I found I love creating characters and hearing their stories. Love walking their journeys with them as they avoid narrow escapes -- or not -- and regain balance, celebrating victories with wisdom learned that enriches us all.

Pearls grow when small irritations invade oysters but get covered over with protective nacre coatings to make them smooth, comfortable and lustrous. Similarly, our characters often begin with niggling, irritating questions which, under many subsequent protective coatings of our imagination, become something lustrous, valuable -- and worth keeping.

I don't know Mildred's remaining life story. She does have permanence and honor in my mind and writing.

What seed character is niggling your imagination today? What is he/she saying to you now, craving expression? Faithfully record each new story waiting to be born.


  1. Dee, as always, I love your post! You are so expressive, and you teach in such beautiful word pictures. :)

    As I read about Mildred, it reminded me of Gina, from my past. I'm going to have to begin praying about if/how she needs to be expressed. Thanks for the points you brought out about creating and developing characters of depth!

  2. Love this example and post! It's so true. My MC for my next book is currently "growing" in my mind...

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  4. Hi Dee.
    Loved the analogy you used!

    I'm working on JP, my MC. Throwing around different scenarious of what horrible thing in his past has happened to make him so bitter,he doesn't want a relationship with my Heroine. Fun :)

    Alena T.

  5. Jeanne, I'm really glad this brought you back to thoughts of Gina--will look forward to getting more acquainted with her.
    Lindsay, love way our MCs roll around inside and grow--have fun.
    Alena, I like the way you're digging around and going backward in search--I'm already interested in what you'll find--major!

  6. Kendall, the heroine for my second novel, grew from a conversation I had with a friend. I mulled over that conversation for quite a few months. Now Kendall is coming alive as I rewrite my fast draft.
    Excellent post, Dee -- as always!

  7. I also have a character that came from a real person: Me.

    I know, we all have those characters. But mine differs in that I glimpsed the Me who did not get saved. I wrote a whole short story on her. Eye opening.

    Thanks Dee for another great reminder!

  8. I have more characters than time to write right now. My current set of characters grew from a tragedy that happened to someone I knew. When I wrote my second book, I loved the secondary character so much that I felt I needed to write her story, but the hero was a mystery until I pondered a tragedy that happened to someone I knew. Then I realized that could evolve into his backstory and motivation for his current goal.

  9. Everyone's comments makes me excited to read how these develop and appear in polished ms. & then in print. Ginger, a you who didn't get saved--an unholy terror? Beth, I'm even more interested in Kendall (& I know a powerful woman of that name). Lisa, great work--you're right, if we pay attention, there are more deserving characters out there than there is time to write--Lord, multiply our time--please! Thanks.

  10. I'm mulling over a character who's a bit of a misfit, not the typical heroine, in a fun and quirky way. I would love to give her my mother's middle name.

  11. I am brainstorming a story and the hero is the character I am struggling with. He is hard to crack, but I am working on him, trying to get him to open up a bit.

    I loved the analogy of the pearl and how it applies to character development. Beautiful!

  12. Working on my new characters now and it's been quite interesting discovering who they are, what they're afraid of, what they want...I think when I first started writing it was so I could create a world I could control. Stop laughing!

  13. Thanks!! Great post, Delores!!

  14. Dee~ Another fantastic post. The pearl is a great analogy. It's so encouraging to know that some of those voices in my head could turn out to be valuable!! =)

    Beth! Kendall is the name of the main character in the first novel I wrote~I was just telling Craig the other day that I was thinking about going back to her, lol. Just out of curiosity, what made you pick that name?

  15. I appreciate all the comments. Teri, I think you should give her your mother's middle name. Pat, we're allowed to laugh--after all lots of us are in the same boat.
    Also, by probing into our characters and their fears, motivations, have you noticed how much we're learning about life along the way?

  16. What a wonderful analogy, Beth. I love this; it gives me a lot to think about as I'm slogging through a first draft of a new novel, trying to figure out what my character really wants to tell me. Sometimes it takes me two or three editing passes before I really know. *sigh* I guess patience is a virtue?

  17. Hey Dee, I'm sorry I'm commenting late. Beautiful post!