Wednesday, May 17, 2017


BY E.E. Kennedy

Fiction writers are artists who work in the medium of words, creating worlds out of thin air. In our art, however, we don’t have the three-dimensional media of clay or marble to work with, only words. We create pictures, but they are mental pictures, to be assembled in the reader’s head. This collaboration is special and must be treated with respect. And, when done properly, this partnership with the reading audience will result in a story that can seem more real and three-dimensional than any film or statue. Putting the philosophy book aside, let me give some suggestions of how we can make our characters seem to step off the page.

Let’s use a few items from the classic news reporter’s checklist to guide us:

WHERE: Make your setting realistic. Whether it’s the town you grew up in or the planet Zarzar, give your location authenticity and detail. Tell us about the gray, late winter snow that always piles up on the big-city curb or the dandelions that dance in the wind on your character’s lawn. Give us consistent descriptions that we can recognize and relate to. (By the way, in science fiction, it’s every bit as important to establish an environment with consistent rules of its own. Maybe the sky is green when a storm approaches, or the occupants of the planet only eat a kind of fungus. But keep in mind, no matter where you set your story, your audience must be understand the location and the story on human terms. Remember, there aren’t that many Zarzarians buying books these days!)

WHAT: Every story should have a kind of conflict. It can be large or small, but the reading adventure should contain an element of danger or frustration. It can be as large as the potential loss of a kingdom—as in Shakespeare’s Richard III--or as small as having to go to school in a beet-stained dress (from a favorite children’s novel of mine, Ellen Tibbets by Beverly Cleary). Determine what is important to your characters and give them some problems in attaining it. Decide what they’re afraid of and put that in their path. How the character comes through difficulties, whether large or small, is the reason the reader stays with a book to the end.

WHEN: Establish your time frame and be challenged to stay there. If you’re writing about the Nineteenth Century, remember that in society, rules for behavior were far more structured then. If it’s about the 1980’s, it’ll be a whole different story. Make your characters’ actions, the clothes they wear, even the words they speak consistent with the time frame. I once began reading a mystery set in Britain during WWII. Intriguing, right? But I put it down immediately upon reading this exchange:
       “No way!”
London during the Blitz was a little before my time, but even I know that this expression didn’t appear until at least two generations later! Research is fun. Comb newspapers from the era you choose. Interview people who might remember how things were. The encyclopedia (primarily online now) is your friend. If you get something wrong, believe me, it won’t go unnoticed!

WHO: I’ve saved the most important for last: the people you write about. Everything you have your character do, say and/or feel tells your reader who they are. The task here is to make them three-dimensional, that is, realistic.
How does your protagonist speak? Is he formal, using few if any contractions like some characters Mary Higgins Clark’s thrillers? Or is he casual and even profane, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye? How does he dress? Impeccably, like James Bond, or rumpled, like Columbo? How can you make your characters as appealing as possible to your readers?

My cozy mystery heroine, Amelia, is the first to admit that she’s a terrible cook. Her bacon is half-raw, her scrambled eggs rubbery, and don’t even ask about her coffee! She barely tolerates the cat she’s inherited. And what’s more, she can’t swim. It’s a running joke among her friends which she finds occasionally irritating. Even though she’s a Christian, she stumbles sometimes, as in Irregardless of Murder, when she tells several white lies to deflect gossip about her and newspaper editor Gil Dickensen. In the same book, she’s even a little jealous of Sally, a former high school classmate.

And yet, Amelia is the hero of the story. It was important to write her that way. She’s a smart, well-educated woman who cares deeply about people, but she would be a cardboard cutout without these faults. It’s this kind of imperfection that not only makes a character realistic, but funny and, I hope, lovable.

As an interesting exercise, think about your favorite books, movies or TV shows and your favorite characters in them and see if you can put your finger on what makes them appealing to you. In The Closer, keen-eyed police detective Brenda is overly emotional and a sugar addict. In Downton Abbey, Lord Robert is snobby and stubborn, but we love him, because he genuinely loves his family.
It’s important for the reader/audience to identify and care about the characters. Reading a book should be a joint experience involving both the reader and the characters. So think: what makes your favorite book three-dimensional?

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  1. I relate to characters who are sympathetic to their family or friends who have problems.

  2. Beverly Duell-MooreMay 17, 2017 at 1:14 PM

    Ellen, great write up! I always enjoy reading what you write on SS.

  3. Realistic twists and turns. Real life isn't easy and fictional life needs to reflect that!
    Martha T.

  4. Characters who are flawed but willing to improve; they are capable of intense love and they often love the wrong things; people who deserve forgiveness and offer that same gift to others!
    Thanks for s great post!

  5. Congratulations, Martha T. You are the winner of a Kindle copy of INCOMPLETE SENTENCED! I'll be "gifting" it to you today!