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How Reading (and Writing) Obituaries Can Improve Your Fiction

Flickr Creative Commons: Howard Ignatius [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: Howard Ignatius

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 [2]

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 [3])

Here’s what I’ve learned about character from reading and writing obituaries.

Small things matter. Pink Mullaney carried chicken sandwiches in her purse to church and gave them to a homeless friend after mass. That tells you worlds about who she was, in one small detail.

Let your freak flag fly. There is nothing you can make up about a character that someone, somewhere hasn’t done in real life. Let you characters be excessive and crazy about their BLTs, or obsessed with 1,001 ways to use old pantyhose. Those quirks make them memorable.

What someone does isn’t as important as how they spend their time. Harry’s career isn’t mentioned in the first line or paragraph of his obituary; it’s at the very end. Harry was a teacher and dean, but his job didn’t define him; his daily habits, his likes and dislikes, his family, his hobbies and his beliefs did.

People are inconsistent. Good people have bad habits, or do annoying (or even awful) things. It might not have been easy to live with Harry’s “competitive sickness” or to wait around while Pink kissed everyone in every nursing home and handed out chicken sandwiches. Don’t forget to let those inconsistencies show.

There’s something wonderful about seeing the entire arc of a life as presented in an obituary. Obituaries make you think; they make you appreciate the enormous diversity of human nature, the twists and turns of fate, the joys and sorrows that bind us. AND they improve your fiction.

Give it a try with one of your characters and feel free to share in the comments below.

About Kathleen McCleary [4]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.