Developing Characters in Fiction

16 May

Mister Streitz's home

Let’s spend a little time discussing the creation of characters in fiction.  As is my norm, I think I’ll drive home this lesson with a story from my past.

I really lived in an idyllic setting as a child.  The neighborhood where I grew up was overflowing with kids and good people in general.  The adults would watch out for all of us, like one big extended family.  Neighbors would help neighbors with big chores, without being helped, just stop what they were doing to man a wheelbarrow or help with painting, that sort of thing.  Everyone knew everyone’s name, a little Mayberry RFD in the middle of Tacoma, Washington.

It was all a very cool setting except for one person:  Henry Streitz, the neighbor who lived across the street from us.

The meanest man I’ve ever met.

Mister Streitz came back from the war a changed man, or so I’m told. All I know is he seemed to be put on this earth to terrorize and cuss at kids.  We knew, when we went out to play ball, that Mister Streitz would eventually appear, shouting at us to stay off his lawn, retrieving loose balls and tossing them in his garbage, cussing us out for disturbing his nap, the list of offenses was endless.

For fourteen years that is how I knew Mister Strietz, as a bitter, angry human being.  I literally, and I’m serious when I say this, I literally never heard a nice word from him during those fourteen years.

And then my dad died.

The day after my dad’s funeral I was outside sitting on the lawn, petting my dog, completely lost in my grief, when Mister Streitz walked out his front door and came across the street.  He stopped in front of me, seemed to be at a loss for words.  The moments ticked by and then he reached out his hand, shook mine, and told me he was very sorry for my loss, that my father was a good man and he would be sorely missed by everyone in the neighborhood.  Then he turned around and left me to my grief.

He never said another word to me in the next five years, and then Mister Streitz died.

MY WRITING LESSON

I try to remember Mister Streitz when I create characters for my books.  Human beings are incredibly complex.  There is a story in each of us, a story born from years of hardships and successes.  No one person is shallow and without personality.  No one person is one-dimensional.  And I believe it is our job, as writers, to bring each main character to life and give each of them the complexity they deserve.

This lesson is now over.  Have a great week of writing!

Bill

Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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34 Responses to “Developing Characters in Fiction”

  1. Janine Huldie May 16, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    I knew totally who you were talking about and still recall you mentioning this man from your childhood another time in your writing. I truly love though that you use him and that lesson you learned about people being complex when writing fictional characters. Great job, my friend and wishing you a very, Happy Tuesday now.

    • Billybuc May 16, 2017 at 2:11 pm #

      Thank you so much, Janine. Since you follow everything I do, I knew you would remember mean old Mister Streitz. 🙂 Thanks for commenting anyway, and enjoy your Tuesday.

  2. froggy213 May 16, 2017 at 2:27 pm #

    As always Bill. Great advice.Thanks

  3. Linda Lum May 16, 2017 at 2:44 pm #

    Bill, I truly believe you could write an entire novel around Mr. Streitz. Delving into what he was like before the war, the images that haunted him, and what was going on inside his head when he heard children playing and yelling and, heck, being children.

    I’m not advocating that you do that, but I know you could, because you give a great amount of thought to your characters. You have to know how they will respond to a situation before you write it. (If you don’t you could be metaphorically painting yourself into a corner). Thank you for taking the time to give advice to us, your classroom.

    • Billybuc May 16, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

      Aww, thanks Linda! Looking back, he was a fascinating man. At the time I despised him, but time and a little bit of wisdom have helped me to see him as what he was . . . a human being. 🙂

  4. Lawrence Hebb May 16, 2017 at 6:02 pm #

    Bill
    Very powerful way of putting it. When I think k of some of the people I knew growing up, they’re just like Mr Stretz.

    • Billybuc May 16, 2017 at 6:24 pm #

      Thanks Lawrence. I find I don’t have to make up characters; I have many to choose from in my past.

  5. 1authorcygnetbrown May 16, 2017 at 9:06 pm #

    I loved the description of your old neighbor! I think every author should know their characters well enough that they are like real people. If I don’t imagine that my characters are real, then I know they are not developed!

    • Billybuc May 17, 2017 at 11:40 pm #

      True words, Donna, and I also think it is the hardest part of writing a novel. Thanks for your input.

  6. Deborah Neyens May 16, 2017 at 11:42 pm #

    Great story, Bill. And a good lesson on character development.

    • Billybuc May 17, 2017 at 11:41 pm #

      I appreciate that, Deb! Thanks…I hope you are doing well.

  7. Sageleaf May 17, 2017 at 2:45 am #

    In the novels I’ve written, I think this is one of the biggest challenges for me: creating real-sounding, 3-dimensional characters. That and creating imaginative characters and plot. Hehe…I think I’m so much better at non-fiction. Hehe. But, I want to keep trying. Eventually I’ll get there – especially with awesome people like you as an example. 🙂

    • Billybuc May 17, 2017 at 11:42 pm #

      Lil Sis, it’s the biggest challenge for me by far. That’s why I like writing a series…it gives me time to gradually add to a character’s personality over time. 🙂 Hugs, Lil Sis, and thanks!

  8. Sarah Potter Writes May 17, 2017 at 1:14 pm #

    I suspect that the horrors of war had robbed Mister Streitz of the energy to deal with children’s exuberance. Also, they probably reminded him all too painfully of the innocence and joy that he’d lost and could never recapture. Or he might have had untreated PTSD, as I don’t believe it was a recognized psychiatric illness then. He was of the generation when males were meant to man themselves up and get on with life. Anyway, I’m glad he showed you his kind side just that once. I agree with Linda Lum, that he would make a most interesting character in a novel. Characterisation is my favourite part of writing. My least favourite is plot pacing.

    • Billybuc May 17, 2017 at 11:43 pm #

      I suspect, Sarah, you are correct about my neighbor. There was no term or even recognition of a problem back then for PTSD…shell-shocked for the really bad cases. Anyway, I’m sure he will appear in one form or another in a future novel.

      And I thank you for your loyalty and friendship.

  9. phoenix2327 May 17, 2017 at 3:42 pm #

    Maybe not a book about Mister Streitz, but certainly a short story. I know of a magazine here in Britain that would probably publish it. I know I would love to see what kind of treatment you would give him.

    I think the trick to developing real characters is getting to know them. And, just like getting to know real people, you can’t do it in one sitting. It takes a few meetings, chats and asking some pointed questions. We actually did an exercise in my writers’ group. We got into groups of two where we talked about our characters and asked each other questions about them. I learned quite a bit about what made my character tick which in turn impacted the direction my story would take. It’s a very useful tool.

    • Billybuc May 17, 2017 at 11:44 pm #

      Great suggestion, Zulma. Oddly, I don’t know any writers in this area, or haven’t met any. I know they are out there, but I don’t belong to any clubs…I may have to correct that. Anyway, I thank you and hope all is well in your world.

      • phoenix2327 May 19, 2017 at 10:29 pm #

        You could start your own writers’ group, ‘cos, you know, you just don’t have enough to keep you occupied. I kid, I kid.

        My world is going good. The trick is not letting the real world in to mess things up.

      • Billybuc May 20, 2017 at 2:51 pm #

        Zulma, when you figure out how to do that, please let me know. 🙂

      • phoenix2327 May 20, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

        The writers’ group or keeping reality at bay?

      • Billybuc May 20, 2017 at 3:02 pm #

        reality of course LOL Happy Weekend my friend. We finally have sunshine and warmth. We turned the heat off yesterday for the first time since October.

  10. Jaye Denman May 18, 2017 at 10:41 pm #

    That was a stunning example of a human’s complexity, Bill. Stunning!

    • Billybuc May 19, 2017 at 1:42 pm #

      Thank you so much, Jaye! It’s always nice to hear from you.

  11. Christy B May 20, 2017 at 8:29 pm #

    Maybe Mr. Streitz came into your life to show you the various sides of a person.. maybe that was his role in your life.. Keep sharing great writing tips, Bill! Happy weekend xx

    • Billybuc May 21, 2017 at 2:51 pm #

      Maybe it was, Christy! I can’t think of any other redeeming value of the man. 🙂 Thank you, as always, for being here my friend. Hugs from sunny Olympia!

  12. Lawrence Hebb May 21, 2017 at 5:30 am #

    Bill
    In case you haven’t noticed, I think you’ve got your own writers group forming around you and giving good encouragement. Only yours is spread across the globe and writes primarily on the web.
    I know that from my perspective I just had something happen today that without your (and others in the group) encouragement and ‘guidance’ wouldn’t have happened.
    You’ll find mention of it on my latest episode I’m writing on HP, but once again, a big thank you for the encouragement.
    Lawrence

    • Billybuc May 21, 2017 at 2:52 pm #

      I will check it out, Lawrence, and I totally agree with you about our global writer’s group. Thanks so much for being a part of it.

      blessings always

      bill

  13. Andrea Stephenson May 21, 2017 at 9:05 pm #

    That’s a great story as a reminder of the complexity of the human character.

    • Billybuc May 22, 2017 at 1:49 pm #

      Thank you very much, Andrea!

  14. Karen Szklany Gault May 25, 2017 at 9:49 pm #

    Awesome reminder, Bill! I will remember this when I return to writing/reworking my novel this fall, when my daughter enters Middle School.

    • Billybuc May 25, 2017 at 9:51 pm #

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Karen! Thanks so much for the visit.

  15. Shauna L Bowling June 16, 2017 at 5:09 pm #

    I remember you talking about Mr. Streitz. He’s proof that there is good in all of us. He certainly would make a good character in one of your stories!

    • Billybuc June 16, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

      He would for sure, Sha! Maybe one day soon I’ll toss him in and give him his fifteen minutes of fame. 🙂 Thanks dear friend and Happy Weekend to you.

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