Character Development

The Hero's Journey - A Character Study of Lebron James

lebron-james-signed-si-cover-3 Lebron James has always fascinated me. I love basketball–coaching, playing, and watching.  I grew up and have spent most of my life in Cleveland. Since I am the same age as Lebron (actually I am 8 months older than him), I grew up listening and hearing about him. I remember when my high school boys' basketball team played his high school St. Vincent St. Mary. His team obliterated my high school, led by Lebron who scored maybe 50 points. And my high school boys' team wasn't your average high school team. It's a big school with a great basketball program.  I say all this to let you know I've been paying attention to Lebron for years, and I am a fan of his, even when he left Cleveland four years ago.

If you are sick of the Lebron story, or simply the fact that a professional athlete is such big news in our society, I agree with that sentiment. But I think Lebron is big news because he's a great character, and his life is telling a great story. Here's a couple quick examples:

Good stories start with great characters. Readers love a character with a tortured backstory who rises above his or her circumstances to accomplish a goal.

  • Lebron is a rags to riches story. He was born to a sixteen year old mother in a rough area of Akron, Ohio. He was introduced to basketball at age nine, and within a few years he was dubbed the next Michael Jordan capturing the basketball spotlight for the next fifteen years.

We resonate with a character who learns and grows through his or her mistakes. We want to read about a heroic character–a character who has a cause bigger than his or herself.

  • Lebron has made mistakes throughout the years on the court and a few off the court. But, he keeps learning and growing so he can be a better basketball player, teammate, dad, and person. One of the reasons he cited for coming back to Cleveland was to bring home a championship to the city. He sees the hunger for Clevelanders to have something to celebrate. He wants that to be part of his legacy.

Lebron is one example of someone who makes a great character in a story. I love looking at real people and seeing what story he or she is telling. Usually it's the people close to me, but sometimes somebody in the spotlight catches my attention.

Do you know someone living a good story? Why is he or she a good character?

Scooping Ice Cream is Helping My Fiction Writing

SweetieFry 2-26-13-11  

I recently left my position at Forest Hill Church as Youth Director. Since my last day at Forest Hill, my life has been filled with moving, travel, a funeral, and a new job. But, life is finally settling down and I am growing accustomed to a new routine.

My new routine includes working a local ice cream shop, Sweetie Fry as an assistant manager. My work is varied; I do anything from creating a new website, social media, blogging, event coordination, marketing, inventory management, to scooping ice cream. It's a great change of pace for me, and I've found scooping ice cream is helping my fiction writing. Let me explain.

I am fortunate to work in an area with a great amount of cultural diversity and I encounter interesting people each day. Some days, I learn a portion of their story or background. Other days, I simply learn their favorite ice cream flavor and invent a story for them.

The interactions with new people are seeping into my characters and writing. I am putting faces to characters based on interactions or creating stories based on a person I met. I jot down notes of someone interesting and make a note for a later story. It's so much fun and I'm glad to have a job which fosters creativity.


How does your day job help your writing or creative endeavors?

Creating Emotional Scenes in a Story - A Study of Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights is one of my favorite television series. I was a latecomer to the series, catching the entire series for the first time on Netflix a couple of years back. But, I loved it and couldn't stop watching. So, a couple of months ago, I started watching the series again from start to finish to see if it holds up after a second viewing. It does.

Friday Night Lights is a show that tugs on my emotions every single episode. I can't believe how often I have tears in my eyes, and often not sad tears, but tears because the moment on the screen is so moving.

So, as I continue work on my young adult novel, I am examining Friday Night Lights to figure out how the series manages to pack so much emotion into each episode and how I can bring emotion into my YA novel. Obviously, television and novels are two different mediums, but both are story-telling mediums and enough crossover exists for writers to learn from television and likewise.

I think the series is fantastic at portraying authentic relationships and those relationships create emotional scenes. The relationship between Coach Eric Taylor and his wife is a great example. Their relationship isn't perfect; they fight, argue, and disagree, yet they understand their love for each other remains in the tough moments.

I also think Friday Night Lights has an element of realism many teen dramas do not. The football team does not win every game. Star players get injured. People make bad decisions. And in all of those moments, the characters wrestle with what is right and many times, the decision isn't black or white. Friday Night Lights isn't afraid to go into the grey areas of our lives.

So I am using those two concepts to help me with my novel-writing. I want to create authentic relationships and tackle grey areas of our lives in my novel. I want my readers to feel like the story is real.

What are ways you create emotional scenes in your stories or novels?

What are your favorite novels, television series, or movies for tugging at your emotions?

The Importance of Character Interaction: A Lesson from Season 4 of Arrested Development

I am a big fan of the television series Arrested Development. I have the first three seasons on DVD, and I have watched each season at least ten times. I love Arrested Development for many reasons. To name a few, the writing is clever, the characters are ridiculously awesome, and the show is still funny ten years later. Plus, there is always money in the banana stand. Needless to say, when I heard about season four coming to Netflix, I was excited. However, as my husband and I learned more about the upcoming season, we became a bit worried. The format of the fourth season of Arrested Development is completely different. I like that Mitch Hurwitz is being creative and trying new things with the flexibility of Netflix. But, I was disappointed to hear every episode was centered around one character. Later, I learned part of the reason for the change was the availability of the cast. Arrested Development was a springboard for much of the cast into greater acting fame. Therefore, it was difficult to gather the cast together for filming.

In case you live in a hole, the complete fourth season of Arrested Development was released to Netflix on Sunday May 26. The season has 15 episodes of varying length with most around 30 minutes. My husband and I have been making our way through the season since its release date. We finally finished the season over the weekend and were a bit disappointed  because some of our worries going into this season were correct.

The new format of the show loses much of the essence and fun of Arrested Development. Each episode focuses on one character for a span of time. During the episode, there is little interaction between the focus character and the rest of the cast; the fun interplay between the characters is lost. I love the show because putting all the stellar actors and ridiculous characters into a room together is a recipe for greatness. Many of the characters do not hold up on their own, but some do. For example, the Gob, Tobias, and George Michael episodes are great.

Season four of Arrested Development reminded me of the importance of character interaction in stories.  An author might have a great character, but not a great story without a good supporting cast. A good story needs good interplay, dialogue, and relationships between the characters. George Michael isn't nearly as funny without Maeby in the story. Harry Potter isn't the same boy without Ron and Hermoine. Psych detective Shawn Spencer needs his sidekick Gus to solve crimes and keep the laughs rolling.

So thanks to Arrested Development for reminding me of the importance of character interaction, even if it means Season 4 isn't everything I hoped.

The Character Timeline

In the middle of writing my first novel, I ran into a significant problem. I had no concept of my character's timeline. For example, I didn't know how old Rachel was when her father died, the age difference between Rachel, her aunt, and her father, or when she moved in with her grandparents. Without knowing the timeline, my story didn't make sense. The story had plot holes. To remedy the problem, I took a break from writing and created a timeline for my story. The timeline listed major and minor events in the life of my character and the ages of each character during each event. I wasn't sure all the events would make it into the novel, but I needed to know the timeline for the character's backstory and my understanding as I wrote the story.

The experience taught me the importance of character timelines. When I start my next novel, I plan to create a character timeline before I start writing. The writing process will be faster and smoother with a timeline.

I also use character timelines during my Discover Your Story workshop. During the workshop, participants identify key moments in their lives: the moments after which they are forever changed in a minor or may way. I call those moments life shifts. After they identify the life shifts, they rate the life shifts on a scale of -10 to +10 (0 is neutral). Next, we plot the shifts on a timeline according to chronological order and the rating. The timeline ends up looking like this picture below.


From this timeline, participants can identify patterns and find connections between life events. They learn about who they are and their past can help others. It's a fun exercise in a  small group.

This timeline can also be created for your fiction characters. I haven't used it yet, but I might give it a whirl on my next novel project.

How do you plan your character's timeline?
Have you completed a timeline exercise for your life? What did you learn?

Character Development and Character Sketches

Any writer or reader will tell you character development is a key component of any story. People want to read about characters who are likable and relatable. We want characters who make mistakes, but learn from them and move forward. We want characters who make us laugh and make us cry. Character sketches are a tool I use during the writing process. Before I start a short story or novel, I create character sketches for the main characters. As I write the story or novel, I revise and add to these sketches as needed. I have ten categories for my character sketches.

Physical Description


Habits/ Mannerisms

Backstory (Your Character's life before the story starts)


Goals & Motivations

Inner Demons

External Conflicts

Character Arc (How Your Character Grows)

Notes (Miscellaneous)

These categories can overlap or may not be applicable in certain stories and settings, but they give me a great baseline for character creation and development.

Character sketches can also be used as a personal development tool. I recommend targeting one aspect of your life for the sketch (such as health, career, family, etc), but creating a general character sketch about yourself is fun and thought provoking too. Here's an example of a targeted personal character sketch:

Character Sketch for Kristen Otte the Writer

Physical Description - 5'4, Brown Hair, Brown Eyes, small & skinny, but in shape

Personality - Type A so organized with lists and calendars, but likes to laugh and make people smile

Habits / Mannerisms - Chewing on my shirt collar, biting my fingernails.

Backstory - College graduate, child of divorce, high school basketball player, avid reader and writer since I was a kid, became a christian in high school

Worldview - People are good and will support you in your endeavors.

Goals & Motivations - To support myself financially through writing

Inner Demons - Fear of Failure

External Conflicts - Money for editor & design services, time to write

Character Arc - Keep writing, publishing and querying until I reach my goal. Learn from my mistakes and the process and move forward.

When you get to the character arc section, the character sketch becomes very useful. Use your sketch and figure out how you can move past your inner demons and external conflicts to grow, develop and accomplish your goal.

Whether you are a writer or not, character sketches are a useful tool. I encourage you to take some time and create one for next novel or your next goal!