Obits and Pieces

Obits and Pieces: Gleaning insight from your characters after their demise 

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One of the cardinal rules of writing fiction is to fully develop your characters. Thinking outside of the box—in literary endeavours as well as other aspects of life—is often recommended to get the creative juices flowing. But in this case, thinking inside the box—or coffin, more specifically—has the potential to allow you to develop your characters in a manner you may not have otherwise imagined. How? Let’s prise the lid off character development…

Character Basics

Among the crucial factors to consider when giving birth to one of your babies are, first and foremost: name, chronological and mental age (because, seriously, how many real people do you know where these figures are identical?), physical description, likes and dislikes, and other basic identifiers.

Wants, Fears, Regrets and Beyond

Time to climb out of the coffin for a while, and utilize every available creative brain cell to construct your character into a well-rounded and vibrant person—a realistic individual who your readers won’t automatically dismiss as two-dimensional and tedious.

A thin, flimsy character is potentially detrimental to the story itself.

Have they suffered any events in their past that have given them unique views on life? What were their happiest experiences? Likewise, are there any incidents they would like to forget? Or perhaps relive?

Write What You Know—About Yourself

Reflect upon your own life and all of the adventures and struggles that have made you who you are today. What do you remember fondly? What do you regret, if anything? Detail any accomplishments of which you are proud, or that you may wish to have a second stab at. If you could relive an experience, what would it be? How do you think your life may have turned out differently if you had taken that left turn instead of going right? How has your own unique path crafted the person sitting at the keyboard right now? Understanding your own motivations in life can open your eyes to directions in which to take your character to make them more interesting, energetic, and evolved—thus enriching your literary undertaking.

Look Death in the Eye

Now, this may be a bit on the awkward and horrific side, but if you could choose your own death, what would you want it to be like? Perhaps, like me, you hope for some romantic, languishing, and exquisite death. A dramatic character will demand a glorious-yet-horrific accident, akin to Evelyn McHale’s suicidal leap from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building on 1 May 1947, where she landed atop a United Nations limousine parked below. Then-photography student Robert Wiles captured a tragic yet stunning snapshot of the 23-year-old woman seemingly asleep in waves of satin, a picture that has been immortalized for the ages. Both figuratively and literally heartbreaking, the image is something almost impossible to forget.

Alternatively, you may be someone who wishes for a quick, painless, non-newsworthy ending. If you have a character that may be less dramatic, then a more pragmatic, less quixotic path to death may arise.

Write an Obituary

Penning your character’s obituary can give rise to a unique view of how he or she lived.

Whether positive or negative, by imagining a character’s death, the writer has the potential to improve the quality of this fictitious being’s life.

If you’re struggling with a particular character, I invite you to reexamine him or her and to imagine some profound death that would make a superb obituary—one that even strangers would excise from the newspaper, display framed in the living room, and bemoan how horrible the world had become with that person no longer in it. Or, perhaps, the world might just be better without him or her around. You be the judge.

Dig Up Their History

There must also be reference to your character’s accomplishments for, after all, of what interest is an obituary without mention of these? Was she a loving and devoted mother? Was he a shrewd businessman who had the Midas touch? Did they possess Stephen Hawking-esque intellect? Would their existence invite Homerian epics celebrating their achievements for all eternity?

As Stephen King so matter-of-factly iterated, everyone—including fictional characters—has some sort of history, and more often than not it is not too interesting. Perhaps if a character’s life exists in mundanity then maybe their death will be similarly unexciting. However, if they experienced a consummate demise, then would their life be that much more interesting? This is your challenge. You can embrace it with interest, courage, and passion—or you could write all of your fiction in the first person, as I do, since I am already intimately familiar with how I want my own obituary to read.

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Natalie has master’s and bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and criminology and is a freelance writer. You can read more of her work on her website.