Category Archives: Characters

Saving or Shredding? The cleaning clutter conundrum

1898 Mark Twain portrait by Ignace Spiridon (image courtesy of Flickr user Terry Ballard)

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain.

I love Mark Twain and his pithy opinions. I saw this quote yesterday and knew immediately that it fit in with my thoughts this week, especially about my life as a writer. While Twain encourages to set sail to explore and discover, he doesn’t include that often the explorations lead to dead-ends and perhaps the journey challenges as well as delights.

This past week I’ve been working on two chores that involve cleaning: the actual cleaning of my living space, and the cleaning out of my files. The former is a straightforward physical exertion that involves scrubbing, scrubbing, and more scrubbing, dusting, vacuuming, and rearranging as well as throwing out old and useless items that clutter up the space and I happily toss out without another thought. The latter challenges me to let go. Do I save them or toss them? The files contained the representations of creative ideas, notes, explorations into character, and discoveries concerning story and plot. There was a time when I saved everything because I was convinced that someday I would find a use for it in some piece of writing or another. That has turned out to not be the case at all.

It pains me to write that many of the files for short stories whose ideas had grabbed me in some way I had completely forgotten, and I looked at them this week as if looking at someone else’s files. Those files were easy to discard, of course. But then there were the files of two novels I’d begun long before Evan Quinn informed me that his story involved five novels. Do I save them or toss them?

The first I’d called “my second novel” with a working title of When You See Her. As I read through the notes in the working file, I remembered what had sparked this endeavor originally. The first was a memory of driving in the Adirondack Mountains at night on pitch black roads because they did not have lighting, and those roads curving sharply and doing switchbacks. I remembered the tension in the car and how scary it was to feel that anything could happen and we wouldn’t be able to see it coming. The second spark flared from a comet hitting the planet Jupiter. Two disparate things that came together in a story about a young man learning about responsibility and redemption. At least, I’d thought along those lines according to my notes. I’d done some character creation and development work, but had only gotten to the end of the first act in the story outline. Apparently, I’d gotten stuck there, then something else had grabbed my attention, and I’d not made it back.

The second novel idea was actually the first novel in a mystery series grounded in Buddhism and starring a 20-something woman working for a private investigator. The title of this first novel in the series was going to be either The Laughing Buddha or Monkey Mind. I’d begun character work on the main character and her boss, and I thought I had the murder figured out, but for some unknown reason, it all went into a file, into a drawer, and stayed there untouched until this past week.  I still like this idea, actually, although now I don’t recall how the Buddhism fit into the series and I don’t remember what the story was. I am a different person now, a different writer, than I was back then, and if I were to pursue this idea, I suspect it would be a new and different story.

Laughing Buddha

As Twain encouraged, with these two ideas I had thrown off the bowlines and set sail into unknown territory in my imagination to see if it would be worth exploring further. I think this is true of any story idea. One of the most important things I learned from studying screenwriting is to test the viability of an idea before getting too far into the writing of it. Think of it as sailing a detour up a river to find out if anything worth attention is farther upstream. If not, turn around and return to the starting point to try a different river. What needed to be upriver was an act 2, i.e. conflicts and obstacles that the main character would need to overcome to achieve his or her goal. If there’s a fabulous act 1 but nothing more, the idea isn’t viable. When writing screenplays, I developed a habit of doing some rough outlining as well as asking other characters what they want and what they’d do to get it in order to ferret out the characters that would be in conflict with or obstacles to the main character. The files I found this week were from novels and stories that were tantalizing rivers that led nowhere. They found their rightful place in the garbage dumpster.



Character: Building and Maintaining Relationships

Last week I wrote about creating and sustaining characters through external aspects: the body, speech, and occupation. This morning, a story sparked some ideas about creating and sustaining characters through relationships, i.e. how characters interact with other characters or human behavior through character. This is the part of character creation and development that most writers find the most difficult because it requires knowledge of psychology and human behavior. The more complex the motivations of a character, the more mystery, tension, and interest around that character.

When I’m beginning work on a story, I want to get to know the characters — at least the characters that have appeared to me so far. With Evan Quinn in the Perceval series, I conducted an interview with him to get an idea of how he thought, what was important to him, how he saw himself. The interview was very much like a 60 Minutes interview — a series of questions that I’d written down and used as my guide. This first step led me to digging deeper into his background, his relationships with his father, with Joseph Caine, and with his mother, much like getting to know a good friend. I ended up creating a detailed backstory for him that doesn’t appear at all in any of the series’ novels. It’s like doing research but instead of reading documents online or in libraries and interviewing sources, it’s inviting the information to come forward out of my imagination. I did not write down this backstory in narrative form, but made detailed notes about the most important elements in that backstory that I knew would feed Evan’s motivations during the series. The bonus: this is work that keeps on giving, since the more I work on Evan the character, the more my imagination (and Evan) gives me.

Once I’d done all that work with Evan, I worked on each of the important people in his life: his father, Joseph Caine, his mother, and then the people that he meets in Vienna and who become important to him — Vasia Bartyakov, Klaus Leiner, Bernie Brown, Sofia Karalis, Greta,  Nigel, Woody, and Freda. And there is one character from Evan’s past that makes an appearance, and I needed to do the same with him. Each character was asked: How do you know Evan? What do you want? What will you do to get it? What is your primary emotional vulnerability? What is your biggest fear? The answers to these questions by each character often revealed their importance in the story, and what kind of conflicts or obstacles they would be to Evan. I wrote all the answers down for each character, and keep them in a characters file. For each novel and the new characters that appear in them, I follow much the same process.

Next, it’s time to look at Evan and all these characters in terms of their relationships. What is the relationship? How does it support Evan? How does it challenge Evan? Does Evan want this relationship? If not, why not?  If so, why? Then I turn it around and ask the other characters the same questions to get their perspectives on their relationships with Evan. Sometimes, I have not known the nature of the relationship until I’ve gotten into it (Sofia, for example, or Owen te Kumara), and what I thought it was turned out to be wrong. The relationship then veered off into a direction I had not seen coming.

Meeting people and making friends is relatively easy. Sustaining the relationship presents the challenge. So, even though Evan is drawn to Vasia Bartyakov and sees him as Joseph Caine reincarnated in some way, they often butt heads because they have different beliefs and personalities.  Evan admires and respects Vasia’s musicianship and his talent as a pianist, just as Vasia admires and respects Evan as a musician and conductor. Music is really the glue that holds them together, and they actually become quite close in a short period of time because of it. My challenge in writing this relationship was showing that closeness through their behavior when they’re together as well as how they talk to each other.

Another challenge for me was Sofia Karalis. I had initially thought of her as Evan’s romantic interest until I got to know Evan better. Then I realized that although he may be attracted to her romantically, his background becomes an obstacle to his being able to love her. When this first occurred to me, I was quite disappointed. In fact, Sofia remains in Evan’s life and plays a pivotal role for him on his life journey a couple of times, challenging him to be a better person and man.

Relationships between and among characters offer opportunities not only to reveal character but also to develop character. It’s important to know the characters involved before throwing them together to see what happens.  But then sit back, watch, learn, and enjoy the show!


This past week I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role. As I wrote here, he has retired from acting. Seeing the movie now, after months of getting used to the idea that it will be his last, left me sad but also energized and amazed by his work, as well as the other actors and the movie itself. Seeing artists like these at work inspires me. And Day-Lewis is a special inspiration — the way he approaches character and character development — for my writing and being a writer.

I find often that when I’m stuck with my writing, watching a good movie with good actors can rattle my imagination’s doors and windows. What is it that the actors do to establish the character?  And how do they sustain the character? What actors do is what writers do in creating and developing characters.  Paying attention to actors when they’re acting can be very helpful to fiction writers.


There are two areas of a character’s physical existence that both actors and writers pay attention to. The first is physical appearance. What does the character look like?  What is his hair color and style? Height? Weight? What kinds of clothes does the character wear? Does this change over the course of the story? I remember at one point when working on a draft of Perceval’s Secret, I decided to let Evan Quinn “go to seed,” i.e. he stops shaving, stops going to a barber, stops paying attention to his grooming to reflect his extreme focus on his work. But then he becomes interested in disguise and how it can help him lead a normal life — another aspect of physical appearance. Clothing can reveal character with respect to its style.  Someone (like Evan Quinn) who prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers is not the same as someone who wears chinos, an Oxford shirt, and loafers. When we walk down a street, we notice what other people are wearing and make conclusions about them based on their fashion choices. So readers will notice when a writer makes note of a character’s clothing. Also, is the character comfortable without clothing? Does he have scars, tattoos, birthmarks?

Paul Newman

The second physical aspect is movement, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, how a character stands (ramrod straight or slouched?), how a character walks. The actor Paul Newman had a distinctive walk that he used at times for a character he was playing, and sometimes not. Does the character walk fast, slow, with long strides or short? Do the toes point out? Maybe the character limps. Or maybe the character has a facial tic or a distinctive gesture. Some characters talk with their hands, as people do in real life, and others do not. Gesture can be a very subtle thing, but if it’s consistent, it can also reveal character.


What does the character’s voice sound like? Does she lisp or stutter? Perhaps she speaks with a foreign accent? Perhaps she’s a real chatterbox compared with someone more laconic. How a character speaks in any given situation reveals the characters emotions as well as thoughts. A writer puts the words in a character’s mouth, or ideally, the character simply speaks as the writer listens and records. An actor will have what’s in the script (which may or may not be written in stone — in theater it tends to be, but not so much for movies), and there’ll be a collaboration between actor and director on how those lines will be spoken. I remember seeing an interview with Anthony Hopkins talking about how he created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. He commented that the key for him into the character was Lecter’s voice and manner of speaking. Once he heard that in his mind and could do it, he had Lecter. How a character speaks should not be underestimated as a key character trait. How a character uses language reveals intelligence level and emotion.

Anthony Hopkins


What a character does for a living can be a method of self expression and another path to reveal the character. In this interview in W, Daniel Day-Lewis talks about the preparations he made, the research he did, to play Reynolds Woodcock, the couture fashion designer in Phantom Thread. Writers will (and should) do similar research into the occupations of their characters in order to insure their characters behave in a plausible way for the occupations. So, with Evan Quinn, an orchestra conductor, I researched orchestra conductors — how they live, work, travel, and see their work. An orchestra conductor will have a different life compared with a plumber or businessman, or a fashion designer. Knowing how a character acts while working adds authenticity to the character in the viewer’s or reader’s eyes.


So, when I need some inspiration for character creation and development, I turn to fine actors who have helped me in the past, such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Who do you turn to?


Flashbacks in Movies

In prose, flashbacks provide information not available in a story’s present, i.e. something a character experienced that can help a reader understand why the character behaves the way he does in the story’s present. Or they can be the entire story as an older narrator remembers an earlier time and experiences, or a specific person. The first novel that comes to mind that uses an extended flashback is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. An adult Scout (Louise) tells the story about the events leading up to her brother Jem breaking his arm. When a story focuses on a present, however, inserting flashbacks into it can slow down the momentum which is not really a good thing.

Recently, I once again encountered flashbacks in movies. They are used for the same reasons as in prose and in much the same way. As a storytelling device, it limits the point of view to the character who is remembering the flashback events.  This is usually signaled to the viewer by the camera zooming in slowly on the character’s face as he or she thinks back. As in prose, there is a “rule” that the contents of the flashback must be what the remembering character experienced him or herself. Filmmakers try to fudge this and it’s one of my pet peeves about flashbacks in movies.

For example: I recently finally saw the 2017 movie Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot as Diana Prince. I was excited to finally see this movie! Not that I’m a huge fan of comic book characters, but I grew up with Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and I’ve always thought of this character as being strong and intelligent, a rarity to see on television at the time. The movie began with Diana Prince arriving at the Louvre in present day Paris, accepting the delivery of a photograph showing her and a motley crew. The voice over sets us up for her memory of how that photograph came to be and we are in an extended flashback.

The photograph Diana Prince looks at that starts her memory

My memory-checking antenna activated and at first it looked as if this movie would not fall prey to the most common mistake filmmakers make when using flashback to tell a story, i.e. slipping into the omniscient point of view of the camera and showing scenes that the person remembering were not in or could not have known about.  Then the first, albeit brief, moment occurred when the Amazon Queen and her sister are talking but Diana is not present. She does come up behind them a moment later. OK. The story continued from Diana’s point of view, with one detour into Steve Trevor’s point of view when he’s telling her about infiltrating the arms factory in Turkey and stealing the evil chemist’s notebook. Fine. After that, however, there are at least two scenes that involved Ludendorff and Dr. Maru in which Diana was not present and neither was Steve Trevor. Diana could not have remembered those scenes nor does either Ludendorff or Dr. Maru describe them to her so she could remember them. What a disappointment! I enjoyed the movie up to a point — I was also a little confused as to why Steve Trevor had to fly the plane full of the poison gas bombs if he’d had faith that Diana would defeat Ares and the fighting would stop.  It wouldn’t have been necessary for him to blow up that plane. Ah, well.

The most egregious example of misusing extended flashback in a movie, though, is Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Rodat. At the very beginning of that movie, we see old guys walking through a cemetery near the coast of France — one of the D-Day cemeteries. One old guy crouches down in front of one headstone, the camera zooms in on his face, and we are taken back in his memory. We don’t know yet who this old guy is, so my assumption was that it was Captain Miller played by Tom Hanks. Especially since we then see a series of scenes that lead up to the famous D-Day sequence that seem to be from his experience. I watched the entire movie thinking that it was an extended flashback of Captain Miller’s experience of finding Private Ryan to return him home. Until it suddenly could not have been his experience anymore, which left me wondering who the old guy in the cemetery was. And we do find out at the end of the movie — it was Private Ryan. Shock. How could that extended flashback have been Ryan when he’s not present at all in the story until three-quarters of the way through the movie when Captain Miller’s platoon finds him? I was actually pretty outraged by what Spielberg and his screenwriter had done in the way they told this movie, and thought Spielberg should have known better. But the really sad part is that very few people who have seen that movie realized that the flashback could not have been Ryan’s memory.

So whether you’re writing prose or a screenplay, be careful with flashbacks!



Being a Fearless Writer

One of my vivid memories from working with an editor on Perceval’s Secret: She told me that I was a fearless writer. Why? Because I had followed my main character where he was going instead of stopping him and making him do something safe and acceptable. The choice Evan makes toward the end shocked me when I wrote it in a white heat. It was as if he controlled me rather than the other way around. It took me a week to recover.  But when I read over what I’d written, I realized that as shocking as it was, it was still inevitable given Evan’s thought processes and background. I made sure that the set-up was there, i.e. the reader could follow Evan’s thoughts throughout the book and right up to the moment he makes that shocking decision.

Stephen King just reminded me of this experience of mine working with the editor on my novel. I had not thought of King as a fearless writer, actually.  Up until this past week, I’d read only one of his novels, Salem’s Lot, which hadn’t impressed me much, but then I’m not big into vampires and horror stories. I do love mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, and serial killer stories. It’s very satisfying to me when the perp is caught and right prevails in these kinds of stories. The King novel I’m reading right now falls into the serial killer/thriller/mystery genre and it’s titled Mr. Mercedes.  It’s the first book in a trilogy with the retired police detective Bill Hodges as the main character.

In Mr. Mercedes, however, King reveals just how fearless a writer he is. He not only takes the reader inside the serial killer’s mind and life, he also takes the reader inside the minds and lives of his victims. This makes their victimhood all the more devastating, also ratcheting up the reader’s emotions to be absolutely behind Bill Hodges as he tries to figure out who the killer is and catch him. It’s one thing to set up victims as King does, and quite another to set up the reader to fall in love with a character who looks safe but turns out to not be safe at all. When I read that section of the novel, I was shocked.  I also admired what King had done. He’d been fearless.

Being a fearless writer can be very, very difficult. After all, we want our work to be read and loved.  We want readers to love our characters, hate our villains. But readers can smell a cop-out a mile away. Writers who are fearful about following their characters’ leads will wrest control of the story away from them and create more “acceptable” action, dialogue, and motivations. That is, being cautious about what they write, not only in subject matter but also in the types of characters in their stories. No extremes. No graphic violence. No questionable ethics or motivations. This caution may reflect the writer’s sensibility, core beliefs, and desire to please. But readers understand that darkness lives in the hearts of all humans, and it’s far more interesting to show characters wrestling with that darkness than ignoring it.

Let your characters tell their stories, be who they are, and behave the way they will. They need you to write and share their stories, exactly as they are, not the way you might think the reading public wants it, or the way you’re most comfortable writing it. Being a writer is not comfortable.