I got the call this past Saturday morning that my grandmother had passed away. I was actually in the car, driving from my house on the west side of Michigan to the east side, the “Thumb,” because Grandma was suffering the effects of a stroke and wasn’t likely to last much longer. When the phone rang, I knew it would be my mom, giving me the news we’d been waiting for.
Grandma died at 99. Or maybe, to be more accurate, I should say she *lived* 99 years, because she would be the first to tell you that she had lived a full life.
With family and friends together, we shared a lot of tears and memories. We talked about what we’d miss. We wouldn’t get any more of Grandma’s famous homemade yeast donuts or cinnamon bread. We’d never again be the recipients of her amazing backrubs. We’d have to find other card players to join our games of euchre.
However, what stood out throughout the conversations I had with family and friends this week wasn’t the things that we’d miss about Grandma. Instead, we talked a lot about what she’d seen in her 99 years. Although I can’t even begin to cover all the significant events of the past almost-century, here’s a handful of events (courtesy of The World Atlas, Wikipedia, and MI Legislature) that happened just here in our state of Michigan during the time my grandmother lived:
- 1928 – Ford Rouge Plant Opened (the largest plant in the world at the time)
- 1929 – Ambassador Bridge Connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario Opened (largest bridge in the world at the time)
- 1941-1945 – Detroit Automakers transform into “Arsenal of Democracy”
- 1950 – Detroit is 4th largest city in US
- 1957 – Mackinac Bridge Opened
- 1959 – Motown Records Founded by Barry Gordy
- 1967 – Race Riots in Detroit Result in 43 Deaths
- 1975 – Ore Freighter Edmund Fitzgerald Sunk in Lake Superior
- 2002 – Jennifer Granholm Elected First Female Michigan Governor
- 2009 – Detroit Automakers in Crisis
- 2006-2010 – Michigan has highest unemployment rates in country
- 2012 – General Motors reports record profits
- 2014 – Detroit is 18th largest city in US
- 2015 – Tourism brings about $17 billion annually into the state
I’m leaving out so much here, but the point is that a lot happens during a lifetime.
As a writer, I’m constantly trying to balance how much of a character’s history to include in a story or novel. My grandmother had a high school diploma and spent her entire life working on the family farm. She raised a family, she sewed, she baked, she drove tractors, she went to church, she hoed beans, and she milked cows. She never met Barry Gordy or Jennifer Granholm, yet I know these individuals—and so much of the events of the state, nation, and world—influenced who she was. It was all these people, places, events, and experiences that shaped her.
In order for characters to be real—to be authentic—they need to be products of their world. That takes some research and careful consideration. Sure, most of that “backstory” never has to make it into the story itself, but in order to write a believable character, those details matter.
Here are links to my favorite character profile resources. Spending time getting to know your character’s wants, needs, and wounds is always time well spent.
- Marshall Jones, Jr.: 100 Questions to Ask People http://marshalljonesjr.com/100-questions-to-ask-people/
- Write, Edit Repeat: Character Profile Worksheets https://writelarawrite.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/character-profile-worksheets/
- Writer’s Digest: Character Sketch http://www.writersdigest.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/30Days-Character-Sketch.pdf
- The Write Practice: 35 Questions To Ask Your Characters From Marcel Proust https://thewritepractice.com/proust-questionnaire/
My grandmother lived an epic life. I can only hope that the characters I write live lives half as full.
What resources do you use to develop your character profiles?