Before. Behind. Between. Begin.

This was one of the best articles on characterization I have ever read and the reason, I believe, Cindy’s books have become bestsellers. 

Cindy is also offering two copies of her latest release, The Scent of Cherry Blossoms, so leave a comment to be entered in the drawing. Continental U.S. residents only, please.

New York Times Bestselling author Cindy Woodsmall is an author, wife, and mother. Her real-life connections with Plain Mennonite and Old Order Amish families enrich her novels with authenticity. Cindy lives in Georgia with her husband of thirty years and the youngest of their sons.

Before. Behind. Between. Begin.
Finding the Four B’s of Your Character
Before your character had control of his or her own life, who controlled it?

When beginning a writing project, it can feel easy to imagine a handsome or heartwarming character with an endearing personality and a couple of flaws that have the potential to get him into trouble. But is that enough insight to enable you, as the author, to know who the character really is?

The problem with not knowing your character well enough is that you won’t know what he or she would say or do in certain situations. You may know what you would say or do or what your imagination could conjure up for your character to say or do, but to understand how each one would react, you must truly know who he is. When understanding any subject, it’s best to start at the beginning – at the foundation – and build from there.

The lives of the characters should begin long before they were born. Who were their parents? What kind of people were they? What was the relationship like for mom and dad before they became “mom and dad?”

When your character was in his growing-up years, did Mom love to laugh, or was she void of humor? Did Dad love coming home, or did he drag himself in near or past bedtime? Was Mom fulfilled within, or did she pine her days away, remaining loyal to the family, but never psychologically embracing them or herself?

The most significant elements of parenting continue to make a difference in the heart, mind, and soul of an adult child. A drug-addicted, alcoholic or absent parent certainly leaves a mark on his or her children. But are these easily-labeled issues the only ones with power enough to show up on the written page?

Doesn’t a mother or father who loves her or his life leave a totally different and equally powerful impression on a child? What about the dutiful and kind parent who is miserable?

The subtleties of your character’s beginning are harder to show on the page, but if you know those nuances, such invaluable information will contribute to how your character thinks and what he or she will do or not do. How this plays out in the action and point-of-view of your characters may be as gentle as having the character show restrained disrespect for anyone he sees across a crowded room who is drinking too much or discreetly popping a pill. Such nuances will calibrate your character’s response in a hundred possible scenarios that can arise in a novel.

It all matters.

How I felt about my parents’ choices and decisions when I was growing up still dictates my choices and decisions today – and I have two grown and married sons. If I liked something my parents did, I did and do that for my own children. If I disagreed or hated something they did, I do the opposite for my children. But when I do things differently, what effect does it have on my children? Do they agree or disagree with my decisions? Is it harmful or helpful?

For example, when I was a child, all food put on my plate had to be eaten before I could leave the table. I gagged my way through many a meal, but I also learned to eat foods I didn’t like. As a result of my own experiences, when my children hated something, I’d give them a choice of other food items with similar nutritional value. I remember going through a list of acceptable substitutes for each child at mealtime. One son hated cooked carrots, broccoli, and English peas, but he would eat raw carrots and broccoli. He’s twenty-five now and still won’t touch English peas. Was my method helpful or did I teach him to always look for the easy way out? Did I give the subtle message that women are pushovers and that if you don’t like what their hard work has provided, they’ll find another option or solution for you? Hmmm.

Knowing about your character’s parents and the cause-and-effect of your characters’ beginnings will determine many of his actions and responses when he is an adult.

Behind every human’s life are thousands of years of DNA that have been passed down. Thanks to that DNA, what natural gifts and struggles do your characters have?

In many ways, “behind” has as much influence over your character’s behavior as the “before.” Many people struggle to control their desires, urges, and personalities. Think about people with a Type-A personality. His patience is taxed before anyone around him has done anything wrong. A goldfish gets on his nerves, and its fish tank probably needs cleaning, organizing, and restructuring ASAP. Type-A personalities are often labeled as “difficult” or just plain “jerks.” But much concerning who they are – athletic prowess, artistic ability, attention issues, good or bad habits, etc. – was all passed on to them from conception.

You don’t need to study your character’s genealogy, but you do need to be aware of what traits were passed down and give some measure of weight when developing your character.

Some of the sweetest people we know were born with a disposition that is relaxed and warm and easy to get along with. I remember wondering as a preteen if those people were less sinful than others who were, by nature, challenging and difficult. Was their sweetness a lack of sin? How could that be? They may have carried more special graces, but didn’t the sin nature itself claw at their hearts and minds too? We know it does, so how does that “sin” show itself on paper?

When characters are built from “before” and “behind,” making each one’s strengths and weaknesses flow onto the page will come naturally – whether they are gentle and truly sweet or easily act like a jerk.

Between conception and the start of your novel, what else molded your character? One of the interesting things about being a human is that the same exact environment could easily be created for several human beings, yet each would have a unique perspective because of the thing we call “personality.” If you have a set of identical twins, each one will react differently to his or her environment. A parade or a clown may excite one toddler and terrify the other.

This is where the author can choose more of who the character is. After plotting out the “before” and “behind,” you’re ready to choose the personality of your characters. Does she accept the pop culture-type thinking of her day, fight against it, or quietly disagree with it? If he lost a sibling in a war, did it make him want to protest wars or join the military? After the “before” and the “behind,” who did your character become in the “between?”

Begin your novel armed with the full knowledge of who your characters are – the before, the behind, and the between. Then ask yourself, what would this person do – how would he or she react – when caught in the emotional or physical destruction in which your plotting places them? Once you’ve completed these steps, you won’t have to know the answer to how they would react when placed in different circumstances. The character – who that person is – will dictate what he or she will do in any given situation. Each character will be true to himself or herself, because you know who they are and from where they have come.

Once your research is complete, the characterization throughout your work won’t be about you, the author, deciding what the character should or shouldn’t say or do; it will be about the author taking accurate notes as the characters speak for themselves.

I’d like to leave you with one last “b” word, but it’s not for your characters, it’s for you…


I could attempt to explain the power of that one vital element, but I think all of us know of its awesome, life-changing strength first-hand. Thanks for inviting me to express some of my thoughts and ideas…may you find who your character truly is.

The Scent of Cherry Blossoms

Annie Martin loves the Plain ways of her Old Order Mennonite people, like those revered by her beloved grandfather. Retreating from a contentious relationship with her mother, Annie goes to live with her Daadi Moses in Apple Ridge.

But as spring moves into Pennsylvania and Annie spends time amongst the cherry trees with the handsome Aden Zook, she wishes she could forget how deeply the lines between the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite are drawn.

Can Annie and Aden find a place for their love to bloom in the midst of the brewing storm?