From the Cupboard by Susan Crawford

This guest post is written by Susan Crawford, author of The Pocket Wife and The Other Widow by Morrow-Harper Collins. She and nine critically acclaimed authors will be featured at the Women’s National Book Association Charlotte’s 7th Annual “BIBLIOFEAST” Book & Author Dinner on Mon., Oct. 17.

susan-crawford-9780062362889_1_a0496Readers occasionally ask me where I get the ideas for my books. “Well,” I say, “there was this article in the newspaper equating homicides with mental illness,” or, “There’s so much more to PTSD than soldiers coming back from war,” or, “I thought it would be challenging to write a sympathetic ‘other woman.’” And these are reasons for writing what I write. They are, at least, the origins, the seeds. What sprouts from them though, the stories, the characters that populate the living rooms, the subways, the streets, and ultimately the pages of my books, are not as easy to explain. In a way, they’re far less rational.

They live inside my head. Like dreams or words I’ve overheard, they dance onto the page. I unlock a cupboard and the characters spill out. With a little nudge they grow and blossom. They invent themselves, become the people that will talk and love and die and kill for the next year of my life, the next three hundred pages. The voices of dead fathers whisper in their ears or turn their hearts to stone. A pinkish sky, a certain smell, a sound, can snatch them from their lives and set them down beside a beach decades before or underneath a blanket from the Andes in a winter room with dirty glass, a broken wall.

For me, the characters make the plot work. They should grab readers by the hand and spirit them away – to a party, down an icy street at midnight, to a lover’s rented room – toward a happy ending, toward redemption, hope, or straight into a wall. Whether they are sunny or demonic, honest or deceptive, they must entice the reader to be right there with them – missing phone calls, burning dinners, losing sleep – following with loyalty and expectation, waiting for motives to come to light, for actions to jar, to change events, to make a difference, to enlighten and inspire. The characters can be right or wrong, good or not so good, as long as they’re believable, as long as they can touch the reader in some way.

book-jacket-the-other-widowMaybe they’re composites, bits and pieces of people I’ve known, or seen or heard or been.  Or maybe they’re forgotten words or incidents I’ve tucked away to look at later, to sort through and analyze, to try to make sense of the world. Maybe that’s what we all are underneath, behind our flesh and tears and smiles – composites of our pasts, of those we loved, or touched, or couldn’t quite, of those we lost. Maybe we’re like antennae shifting through space, picking up frequencies, picking up stories, other places, other times, other rooms. Maybe I am really just a scribe.

I don’t write about real people. I write fiction. But I wonder sometimes if the two are all that different – if their fragments and details fall together in a certain way to make a character in fiction rather than my next-door neighbor or my friend from high school. I’ve read that there are only seven basic stories told in countless ways – the human condition, thrown down like cards to land in myriad configurations – Dorrie from The Other Widow, different from the woman in the book I’m writing now because she grew up in a different place, a different situation. Just as we are molded by circumstance and chance, by where we landed and began and where we go from there, the characters fall from their cupboards, brush themselves off, and march onto the page.

see url Susan grew up in Miami, Florida. She later moved to New York City and then to Boston before settling in Atlanta to raise three amazing daughters and to teach in various adult education settings. A member of The Atlanta Writers Club and The Village Writers, Susan works for the Department of Technical and Adult Education and is a member of her local planning commission. She now lives in Atlanta with her husband and a trio of rescue cats, where she enjoys reading books, writing books, rainy days, and spending time with the people she loves.

More about Susan:  wwwsusancrawfordnovelist.com, Twitter: crawfordsusanh, Facebook: Susan Crawford Author

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Questions to Ask For Developing Characters

Developing characters in important and tricky. Here are some questions to ask yourself while you’re fleshing out your story, to be sure you’re creating good, believable characters that readers will identify with.characters

  • Main character—is he/she three dimensional? Believable?
    • When did you start to care about him/her?
    • Was his/her problem important-seeming?
    • Are his/her details (looks, age, jobs) introduced early and in a natural way?
      • Do his/her details make sense? Does the job make sense given the personality? Do the personality traits go together?
    • Is his/her backstory integrated well? If revealed in dialogue, does it sound natural? Is too much backstory given?
    • Do his/her behaviors match the described personality?
      • If a character is described as outspoken or strong or brave, yet doesn’t speak up, lets other characters run roughshod over him, and doesn’t stand up for himself, that’s a major incongruity. Readers will believe the actions over the description, but just make sure they match in the first place.
    • Is the main character as strong as he/she needs to be to overcome the obstacles?
    • Does he/she have a goal?
  • Secondary characters—are they three dimensional? Believable? Distinguishable?
  • Tertiary characters—are there too many?
  • Do the characters have appropriate motivation to act on the conflict?
  • If there is an antagonist, is he/she cartoonishly evil or realistically bad?
    • Even bad guys have some good traits—does yours?
    • Why is your bad guy bad? What is his/her backstory?
  • Are there any characters that appear in just one scene? Could their dialogue/action be given to a different character?
  • Do you have any major characters introduced late in the book (past the first quarter)?
  • Do any major characters disappear before the end of the book?
    • Should they really be as major a character in their part of the book, if they’re not important enough to be in the full story?
    • If they really are major and important characters, shouldn’t they appear throughout?
  • Are any of the characters stereotypes? Could they be fleshed out with some shades of gray to make them more believable?
  • Do you have female characters who aren’t wives, girlfriends, or secretaries?
  • Are the names varied enough in syllables and first letters? Are any names conveniently typical (such as “Matt Stoner” for a hippie)?