Great characters are the heart and soul of every great novel. And even though I’ve published three novels, I struggle every time with how to make my characters real—rich, multi-dimensional, relatable. Recently, in the middle of my current WIP, I discovered something that has changed character writing for me forever: Obituaries.
I needed to write an obituary for one of my characters in this novel. I read obituaries online and in newspapers and even bought a book of collected obits. And I discovered that there’s no better way to get to know a character than writing a good obituary for him or her.
[pullquote]There’s no better way to get to know a character than writing a good obituary for him or her.[/pullquote]
I’ve never written character studies or worked my way through lists of questions I should be able to answer about each of my characters (“What is your character’s biggest fear?” “What is your character’s favorite food?”) That’s not my thing. But writing an obituary for a character—that’s story telling, and story telling is my thing. I’ve written obituaries for several of the main characters in my WIP now; not because I plan to use them in the book but because it helps me develop and understand them.
Start out by reading obituaries. They are a treasure-trove. Here are bits from a couple of my favorites:
“Harry Weathersby Stamps, ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler, died on Saturday, March 9, 2013. Harry was locally sourcing his food years before chefs in California starting using cilantro and arugula (both of which he hated). For his signature bacon and tomato sandwich, he procured 100% all white Bunny Bread from Georgia, Blue Plate mayonnaise from New Orleans, Sauer’s black pepper from Virginia, home grown tomatoes from outside Oxford, and Tennessee’s Benton bacon from his bacon-of-the-month subscription. … He fancied smart women. He married his main squeeze Ann Moore, a home economics teacher, almost 50 years ago, with whom he had two girls, Amanda and Alison. He taught them to fish, to select a quality hammer, to love nature, and to just be thankful. He took great pride in stocking their toolboxes.
He excelled at growing camellias, rebuilding houses after hurricanes, rocking, eradicating mole crickets from his front yard, composting pine needles, living within his means, outsmarting squirrels, never losing a game of competitive sickness, and reading any history book he could get his hands on…” (You can read the rest here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/sunherald/obituary.aspx?pid=163538353
“Mary A. ‘Pink’ Mullaney. … We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments. Also: If a possum takes up residence in your shed, grab a barbecue brush to coax him out. If he doesn’t leave, brush him for twenty minutes and let him stay. Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to church with a chicken sandwich in your purse. Cry at the consecration, every time. Give the chicken sandwich to your homeless friend after mass. Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone. … Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner. If they are from another country and you have trouble understanding them, learn to ‘listen with an accent.’ Never say mean things about anybody; they are ‘poor souls to pray for.’ Put picky-eating children in the box at the bottom of the laundry chute, tell them they are hungry lions in a cage, and feed them veggies through the slats. …” (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/jsonline/obituary.aspx?pid=166788801)
Here’s what I’ve learned about character from reading and writing obituaries. [Read more…]