Tag Archives: character development

Pumping Up Your Image

During one of the early writing classes I took, I received a red envelope from my instructor, Ariel Gore. This wasn’t just any red envelope. It was small and was decorated with Vietnamese characters written in gold. A drawing of a young boy and a young girl, in what seemed to be ceremonial dress, bowed to each other.

The envelope held promise, but I wasn’t allowed to open it until Ariel gave the instructions.

We were to choose an event we wanted to write about, she said, a powerful image from our past or a scene from a story in progress. Inside the red envelope was a series of cards with questions. We were to pull out the cards, one at a time, without peeking). She wanted us to answer each question and then use those responses to write – or rewrite – our story.

There was no order to the questions, and we didn’t have to answer them all. But, even the few that I drew were enough to widen my perspective of the scene, to see what the character saw, and to incorporate details I overlooked when I had written an earlier draft.

I loved this writing exercise.

The little red envelope appeared mystical with it’s Vietnamese writing, the hopeful expressions of the young boy and girl, and the secret cards; it was bound to do magic on my writing.

The assignment wasn’t daunting; all I had to do was read and answer a few questions. I could even make up the answers. There was no wrong way to do it.

And, the answers put me front and center into the image. They helped me color the scene, add texture, and reveal insight into my character.

As I stepped behind my character’s eyes, I drew these cards:

  • About how old are you?
  • What is to your left?
  • What is to your right?
  • Is anyone else in the image?
  • Why are you there?
  • Is there anyone who just left or who may be coming?
  • What are some of the sounds in the image?
  • What does the air smell like?

I thought it would be fun to try this exercise again. Here’s a snippet of a story – a before and after. Hopefully, the power of the exercise will still shine through:


One by one they got up from the bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed upstairs with me. He wanted to smoke, so I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside onto the roof.

There, under the stars, we sat on a small ledge. He smoked. I pulled in my knees and wrapped up in a blanket. We talked. For a long time, we just talked. He laughed at my jokes. But still, he looked me in the eyes when he spoke. I sat with him until the mosquitoes got the best of me.

After: *

At twenty-one years old, I was accustomed to staying awake into the wee hours of the morning. But, I wasn’t used to being woken up at 3am by a posse of four. My roommate Mollie, her friend Jan, and two guys I had just met all sat on Mollie’s bed, across the room from mine. They stared at me and giggled. Knowing they weren’t leaving any time soon, I sat up, wrapped my comforter around me, and listened while they recounted their evening.

Their tale ended, and one by one they got up from Mollie’s bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed in the room with me. As the sounds of Jimi Hendrix climbed the stairs, Paul stood up.

“I need a smoke,” he said. “Can we go out on the roof?”

“Sure,” I shrugged. I wasn’t tired any more.

I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside. The roof was cool and the air crisp. I pulled my comforter out with me, and we sat on a small ledge that jutted out just enough. We sat side by side, my toes barely over the edge and Paul’s legs dangling.

Paul lit a match, and, even though I didn’t smoke, the first whiff of his cigarette filled my nose with a satisfaction. We sat under the stars and talked about the fresh smell of Spring time in the morning – wet grass and dirt, about the quiet, and the light of the full moon.

It was easy, sitting there with Paul. I pulled in my knees but let the comforter fall off of one shoulder. For a long time, we just talked. He looked me in the eyes when he spoke. And, he laughed at my jokes. I sat with him past the last drag of his cigarette, through the songs of the early morning birds, until the mosquitoes and hunger got the best of us.

Whether you write memoir or fiction, your story is full of imagery. Details settle the reader into time and place, and they give flavor and richness to your story.

If you’re considering a rewrite, ask yourself this: From behind whose eyes does your story unfold?

Who’s got the angle on perspective?

And then, answer a few simple questions of your own.


* Funny, I said I wasn’t going to write flash fiction every Wednesday for a while. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.


On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction

Sitting in my critique group the other night, it was Stanley Kunitz who came to mind as we discussed the challenges in writing memoir.

Not because Stanley Kunitz wrote memoir, but because his poem, The Layers, seemed to answer the question of how to write memoir.

How does a writer condense decades of one’s life into 300 pages?

What years do you ignore? Which memories do you highlight? And, how do you make it all come together without retelling every minute of every day of how you got from there to here?

After my mother passed away, a good friend gave me Stanley Kunitz’s book, The Collected Poems, and she pointed me to page 217. The poem,  The Layers, in its entirety, is a beautiful tribute to loved ones gone but never forgotten. We are touched by the people in our lives in a way that, even after their presence is diminished – for one reason or another – we still feel their power.

Two specific passages from that poem stayed with me during the early days, months, years of grieving for my mother. Then, as I sat around the table with other writers and talked about memoir, those passages burst forth again:

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

Writing memoir isn’t about retelling every detail of every day. It’s about picking and choosing those pivotal moments, or about recounting those powerful relationships in our lives, that served as a catalyst – that swayed us one way or another or shifted our perspective slightly – and forced us to grow and to change.

I mentioned the poem to my critique partners, and the second I related it to memoir, I realized the same principle applies to fiction. The main character in my WIP has experienced pivotal moments in her life as well. I don’t have to wrestle her into confessing every gorey detail about her life from first memory and beyond. I only need to discover places along her journey where she stayed – just long enough – that they left an imprint, and I only need to write on the people in her life who, like precious stones, line her path of character development.


Kunitz, Stanley. The Collected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.


The Mother, The Writer: History repeats itself.

When I was pregnant with my first child, experienced parents approached me and my rounded belly and always smiled an empathetic smile.

One by one, they hinted at what I was in for once that baby arrived: no sleep, life as I knew it would be over, and the crying…oh the crying.

I heard them, but I didn’t heed their words, because I was riding high on the excitement of holding a baby in my arms. Sleep is underrated, I thought. Life is boring anyway, and a baby’s cry? Like the sound of sweet music.

But after my son was born, I realized the crying of which they warned me were the sobs of a new mother. Cries from me, falling apart after several sleepless days and nights and battles with feeding and a moment in the hospital when I feared I would never be a good mother.

“I told you that you’d feel this way,” my sister said, through her own tears, as she tried to comfort me.

My recent attempt at fixing my WIP brought with it a similar flood of emotion and self doubt.

I’ve read over and over how novel writing is hard work – the first draft may come out easy, but the real challenge comes in rewriting. I nodded each time I read those words, because the logistics made sense. A first draft is never perfect. I got it.

Then, I pushed those wise words aside and set my gaze on a dreamy image of me holding a published novel in hand. I told myself, I can do this rewrite thing, chapter by chapter. And, character development (my latest issue)? That’s easy enough. I’m the author. I can make up whatever I want.

But, that’s not exactly true. While I, the author, control all the variables, those variables must make sense in relation to the real world. As Larry Brooks says it in his book on character development*, a character’s “…major behavioral tendencies and specific actions need to be in context to psychological truths, and if [they aren’t] your story will suffer for it.”

After a few days of scribbling notes and typing frantic details into a new document, I stared at my WIP with wide eyes and climbed aboard that same roller coaster that new mothers ride. My head swelled and my stomach fell and soon enough I said out loud, I’m not so sure I can do this. What if I get it all wrong? What made me think I could ever write a novel?

As I write this post, it all sounds so dramatic. But, that’s the way I felt in the last few days. And, I don’t think I’m alone.

Ray Bradbury was talking to some self-doubting writer when he said, “You fail only if you stop writing.”

And, Amy Tan was easing the fears of another writer when she said, “I started a second novel seven times and had to throw them all away.”

Whether I start over completely from scratch, or I get back into the ring with my main character and wrestle her into confession, I’m not sure. Regardless, I have a WIP in my hands, a story that needs finishing, and I am the only one who can do it.


* Brooks, Larry. 2010. The Three Dimensions of Character Development: Going Deep and Wide to Create Compelling Heroes and Villains. [e-book] Larry Brooks, available at http://www.storyfix.com.