Deepening the Plot: Characters & Setting

Developing Character
Establish your family members as real people who are as complicated as heroes in novels. Emphasize the human qualities–their actions will speak for themselves. Use concrete and specific details. Don’t just tell about them, show them. Look at the people in your life as characters in a book; as soon as you write about them that is what they will turn into!

Use Photographs to help with physical descriptions. Interpret them as well as using them for concrete and factual details.

Try to establish a dominant impression of the person that you are trying to describe. Although people often lack a clear outline, it is the writer’s responsibility to interpret character. Guide your selection of detail to produce an overall, unified effect.

Capture feelings. Include not only what happened in your family’s lives, but also their thoughts and emotions when it was happening. Incorporate your impressions and inner responses, too, if appropriate. (Be careful here; don’t be gushy-sentimental!).

Describe the characters in action, not only typical everyday scenes but in their relationships, work, and play.

Use dialogue to make your family members become “real.” In nonfiction, it must really have been said or be representative of the kind of talk that did or might have occurred. Unfortunately, writing natural dialogue is difficult. Read it aloud to see if it sounds natural.

Include minor “characters” in your family history, too–the hired man, a Sunday school teacher, a next-door neighbor–with whom your family member/s can act, react, and comment upon or with.

Include the impact of relationships between people in your family–both allies and antagonists.

Do not pass judgments on the people about whom you write. Use precise details rather than judgmental adjectives.

Make the person believable by including the negative as well as the positive, the unhappy as well as the happy times, the doubts and failures as well as the successes. Nobody is perfect. Try to be objective and not judge the person. Be responsible, responsive, and fair to the people about whom you write. “Tell the whole truth with love” (Rainer).
How much should you tell? Up to individual; however, “We have a right to tell our stories, but not to blunder into publication without a thought for the consequences” (Barrington).

As you write about your ancestors, whether in the remote past or those currently living, add as much detail about them as you would if you were creating a fictional character. Make them come alive for the reader. Here are some avenues to investigate:

Background and personal history
Turning points in person’s life
Important people in his/her life
Typical actions and gestures, facial expressions
Quotations from interviews, letters, diaries, journals
Favorite expressions
What the person doesn’t do
What others say about the person
How others react in the person’s presence and your reaction
Favorite/typical clothing
Favorite foods, movies, books, magazines
Names and nicknames
Philosophies and goals, spiritual beliefs
Hobbies and pets
Education, organizations, and accomplishments
Anecdotes that illustrate character traits

Establish a Sense of Place. Places affect our lives as much as people do. We are all shaped by our surroundings.

When describing a setting, establish a point of view. Do not remain static. Walk, view the scene from a car, an airplane, a hill looking down, a valley looking up. Or if you are stationary, have what you are viewing be in motion, such as a busy street or a kitchen on Thanksgiving morning. You could also let your imagination move in chronological time.  Remember: if you walk, you see things in great detail, but if you are in a car, you will see things more impressionistically.

Establish an occasion for the description of setting. Why are you describing the place? Are you returning after many years? Has some event changed the nature of the place completely? Are you trying to show how the place has an impact on your family’s life or your own? Does the place teach a moral lesson?

Establish a dominant impression. Often it will contrast or complement the character or family being described.

Select concrete details that typify the place and reinforce your dominant impression. Be selective. Good descriptive writing demands restraint and discrimination. It thrives on sharp details and vivid, unusual description. Feel free to explore your own reactions to places, objects, or situations.

Again, photographs can come to the rescue to help you accurately describe a scene. If possible, visit the scene to get a feeling for the sense of place.

Arrange your details in a pattern that is easy to follow and fits the subject. Normally, a description of a place is arranged spatially (foreground to background, sky to earth, panoramic to detail) or chronologically (seasonal changes, walk at certain hours of a day, return to past).

Use your imagination and/or research to fill in the gaps. “What is reminiscence, after all, but memory mixed with imagination?” (Rainer). Don’t be afraid to generalize and say, “I imagine,” “perhaps,” “typically,” or “often.”

Setting can be made more visual and realistic using these following tools:
Newspaper clippings
Contemporary periodicals
Geographic dictionaries
Encyclopedia articles
History books
Comparable historical sites
Historical archives
Internet sites
Chamber of Commerce


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