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Understanding Story: The Question of WHO?

Updated on June 19, 2013

"Question Mark Dice" by Stuart Miles

"Question Mark Dice" by Stuart Miles
"Question Mark Dice" by Stuart Miles | Source

Over the past few years, I’ve been to several different workshops, where authors try to impart their wisdom on how to create the next bestseller. Some say it is best to plot out every detail, creating forty-five page outlines, while others simply suggest you just go with the flow – sort of like rolling a pair of dice to determine the fates of your characters. Yet, the best workshop I ever visited was by Allen Wold at Ravencon. Through his teachings, I learned the importance of questions.

Before you can create a story, you have to know what a story is. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, story is defined as “an account of incidents or events.” That being said, it has a beginning middle and end.

As a criminal paralegal, during witness and client interviews, I constantly have to ask the tough questions. Here are my tips for getting started on created the story you’ve always wanted to tell. Today we will focus on the WHO.

WHO? Who is your story about? Ask the questions of age, gender, ethnicity, language, education, socio-economic status.

Of course, we are more than just our names. And in order to create three dimensional characters, the characters must have a background (life that existed prior to the beginning of your story). For example, if you were to meet me today for the first time, you’d meet a newly published writer; however, if you’d have met me this time last year, I was only an aspiring writer. My situation has changed and change always causes some sort of growth.

Therefore, to create characters you have to delve into what it means to be that person. This includes personality type and quirks, habits, education, language ability, ethnicity, socio-economic status, criminal history, medical history and of course, an idea of their aspirations and desires. What I like to do when I create characters is to include at least one negative trait. I believe that people, all people, have at least one thing that is not positive in their lives (and there are some things that appear positive in the beginning to only be negative). For example, it could be the fear of spiders (something that he has to overcome in the story), or even his hate of being colorblind.

Your characterizations can include as much detail as you wish. It is possible that a lot of what you create will not be shown to the reader, but by you knowing your character, you are then able to create unique dialog, situations and reactions based on the people you’ve created.

In this initial phase, I recommend, creating a chart where you can input all of your characters details. By having it readily available and organized, later when you need it (and during copyedits when eye colors and hair colors suddenly change –the chart helps), it will be easy to confirm the details you’ve included.

Additionally, when creating the backstory, if you are unaware of any smidgen of information, it is important for you to gather the same through reputable sources. This is a great time to do actual interviews with people working in certain professions and/or fields. This extra step, or detailed research, will help your characters to come even more to life and will assist in making your characters have a more genuine realness to them than the cookie-cutter-cardboard boxes that are easy to use.

When dealing with the question of who, it takes time and effort to create memorable characters. The greatest response you can receive as an author is for your reader to have a visceral reaction based on your tale. Don’t take shortcuts, but instead take the necessary time to mold your characters into three-dimensional people. Your readers will be thankful for all of your due diligence.

Writing is an adventure, and I am glad you are along for the ride. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below. And until the next entry, keep smiling …and writing!

Tina Glasneck is the author of THOU SHALL NOT. She also authors craft articles and short stories. With a theological and criminal background, Tina enjoys creating heroes with bite, villains with motives and a plot with an impeccable pace. She is currently working on her follow up novel, Angels Cry.


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      Tina Glasneck 5 years ago

      Thank you Reesa! It is easy to forget the importance of making sure that the characters existed before the "telling" of the story. Imagine how the fairy tale of Cinderella might have been told by the other stepsister or even from the evil stepmother's point of view. I believe if we take the time to infuse our stories with 3-D characters, then we do the story and our characters justice!

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      S. Reesa Herberth 5 years ago

      I really like this post, Tina. Flat characters kill any story for me. I want the sense, even with incidental characters, that they have a life outside of the page I'm seeing them on. This is a great explanation of how to craft a character with depth, and then use that depth to guide their interactions with the plot and the other characters.

    • Tina Glasneck profile image

      Tina Glasneck 5 years ago

      Denise, thanks for your wonderful comment! I am just trying to impart the wisdom I have gathered over the last couple of years and I think that when an author puts the time in to develop "real" characters, the reader is rewarded with a vibrant and lively story. I can still remember the books that I read when I was younger because of the 3-D characters.

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      Denise Golinowski 5 years ago

      Hi, Tina! Good post. I've attended a number of Allen Wold's presentations at RavenCon and I've always walked out with great story ideas and information. I agree that the WHO of the story need to be fully fleshed out, though I admit I often do this as I follow my character down the faintly defined path of the story. It's always been crucial to me to feel a connection with characters I read as well as those I write. Thanks for an enjoyable post and I look forward to more.

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