personal growth

Life Shifts in YOUR Story & Your Character's Story

A life shift is defined as a moment or event that takes place after which you or your character will never be the same. A life shift is something that changes your life, your values or your worldview. A life shift can can be a positive or negative experience. For example, life shifts for people can be getting married, having kids, going on a mission trip, losing a job or losing a loved one. Some people may call life shifts turning points. But, I feel the phrase "turning point" makes it sound more extreme than a life shift could be. Sometimes life shifts are subtle. It could be a decision to quit something, to start a new habit or a conversation with a friend or loved one. In my Discover Your Story Workshop, life shifts are key to understanding the theme of your story and where you see God and redemption in your life. I have participants spend time identifying the life shifts and rating them on a scale from -10 to +10. This exercise gets people thinking critically about the moments which shaped their life. Many times, especially if you let the idea of life shifts resonate for a few days, you may discover a few life shifts that surprise you or see a pattern in your life you didn't expect.

If you are writing fiction, whether it is a short story, a serial or a novel, life shifts are just as important. You need to know when your character experiences something that forces change and transformation. You need to know what triggers your characters into a negative spiral or positive action. Sometimes you may not know all of the life shifts for a character until you start writing and getting into the story. But, I find it helpful to keep an ongoing list as you write to keep track and to ensure your character's actions and reactions make sense.

What is a surprising life shift in your life so far?

What are some life shifts in your character's journey?

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!


The What If Questions: The Thanksgiving Edition

Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about story concepts. Every story starts out as a concept which can be a what if question. The answer to the question becomes the story. Here's an example of a story concept: What if a boy didn’t know he was a wizard?

The answer is the story of Harry Potter.

In the post, I extended the story concept to our lives. When we start asking what if questions in our lives, the answers lead us into a more exciting life story. Here's a few examples:

What if I went back to school? 

What if I stopped complaining?

What if I quit my job?

At the end of the post, I challenged my readers to ask what if questions for their lives and to explore the answers. In my Live Your Best Story Workshop, we flesh out the what if questions so participants know the next steps to answer the questions for their lives.

But, this week, I'm thinking about what if questions in a different light. I'm thinking in the past tense.

What if I never contacted Brian to speak at the youth retreat several years ago?

What if we didn't drive to London, Ohio to adopt a pug we hadn't seen or met?

What if I didn't move back to Ohio a few years ago?

These what if questions are tough. I don't have good answers for most of them. But, for all three of these questions, there is a common theme. I can't imagine my life if those things didn't happen. I don't want to think of a life without Brian or without Zelda the pug (go ahead and laugh at me). I can't imagine a life where I don't have the freedom and ability to pursue writing.

These past tense what if questions put me in a mood of gratefulness and of thanksgiving. I'm thankful for the life I have- my husband, my family, my crazy pug, my friends, my job(s), and my faith. As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week in the United States, I challenge you to think of the past tense what if questions. I challenge to be grateful for where you are in your life right now, even if you are in a rough stretch.

What are you grateful for this week?