Deep Characterization

By Normandie Fischer, @WritingOnBoard

Following up on my April post about deepening characterization, let’s take a look at Charles Martin’s Thunder and Rain.In all of his books, Martin writes of wounded folk who face challenges based on the lies they believe about themselves and their world.

The characters in Thunder and Rain:
Cowboy is an ex-Texas Rangerwho struggles to survive as a rancher, to pay off his almost-ex-wife’s debt, and to make things right for his young son.

Andie is the wife he failed, the one he still wants to rescue—the one he thinks God wants him to save.

Sam is a woman running from the Bad Guy and hanging onto a secret that could put the man away for good.

Hope, her young daughter, has run afoul of the Bad Guy and uses a journal to tell God her secrets. (I adore Hope. Well, really, I adore them all—except for Andie and the Bad Guy, but that’s to be expected. The Bad Guy is horrid and dangerous because he’s in a position of power. The perfect villain.)

You can imagine the lies these folk are busy telling themselves merely to survive. Martin’s heroes are heroes, and like all heroes, they are flawed. When we first meet Cowboy, we see a man who is torn between two desires and two realities.

This is important.

These layers are what make us want to know more about Cowboy—and they make us want him to win—but we’re not sure what winning will mean for him. This uncertainty makes us curious. We want answers.

  • Why has Cowboy put away his badge?
  • What are his goals—immediate and long-term?
  • What in his past might have turned him into someone who has to save others?
  • Can he actually save anyone, including himself?
  • What hold does his wife have on him?
  • What is her purpose in the story? 
  • Why does Cowboy roll a cigarette each time he spies on Andie? Why does he leave it there, unsmoked? What does it mean?
  • What is he going to do about the new problems in his life?

As for Sam, she’s a woman on the run with her precocious daughter, Hope. They have to succeed. We’re rooting for her, but we want answers.

  • Why does she keep picking losers, men who take advantage of her?
  • What do her choices say about her and her perception of herself?
  • Is she a strong or a weak character?
  • What is most important in her life?
  • Will she have to settle for what she deserves?
  • Or will she win what she longs for and doesn’t deserve?

Can you see the sort of questions Martin, as the creator of these characters, had to ask himself before he began and as he wrote? He needed their backstory and their now story and perhaps their future story. He needed to know them.

Which, I assume, brought him to–

  • What does Cowboy want, and how can that be shown through the things he tells himself?
  • Is Cowboy working under assumptions that are true or false? 
  • Are these absolutes based on his worldview or based on how he views himself?
  • Is he trying to make up for something in his past? 
  • Is he trying to keep from letting someone down? Who? His son, his father, himself?
  • What career choice would best highlight Cowboy’s strengths and weaknesses? 
  • Why would he leave it and become a rancher? How well will that choice work? Why or why not?
  • What in him might have made him choose Andie and then not be the man she needed him to be?
  • What in him or his past would have made him take the blame for her failures?

And then there was Sam–

  • What lies does she believe about herself? What truths hasn’t she admitted?
  • How will the story reveal these to her and to the reader?
  • How did her past turn her into a woman who made such bad choices?
  • If her stated goal is to protect her daughter and herself, what might she have to do to accomplish that?
  • Do her longings coincide with her stated goal? 
  • What might be her deepest longings?A home? A man who is worthy of her love? A father for Hope?

Martin begins to reveal each character’s mess at the point where they intersect with other characters. Cowboy rescues Sam and Hope from their broken-down car and broken-down life as they flee the Bad Guy. Of course, Cowboy only managesa half-rescue. The reader knows we’ll hear from that nasty fellow again. In the meantime, Hope’s conversations with God via her journal give us a wonderful perspective into her thoughts and reactions.

We’re hooked immediately. And then Martin takes us on a roller-coaster ride filled with up moments, followed by shattering valleys and jerk-your-heart-out turns. But he uses every bit of action and reaction to take us more deeply into each character’s life and thought. We care. We want each one to succeed. And we want justice for Hope and punishment for the Bad Guy.

Martin doesn’t present a foregone conclusion. A lot of those dips and turns happen because of the principles Cowboy lives by and the brokenness of everyone in the story. The author has given us characters with conflicting stated goals who have very similar longings. Because he is such a gifted storyteller, he deepens each character and makes us want not only to know what, when, and how, but also to understand the why, the layers of story and of character. And this is what will bring readers back for more—not just for more of Martin’s books but for a deeper inspection of this particular story. By the end of the book, we want to know Cowboy and Sam.

How do we as writers uncover our characters’ expressed and unexpressed needs and longings? How do we make our characters multi-layered, with goals they may not even recognize?How do we write a book that makes readers want to dig deeply enough to uncover all the layers?

We need to consider, for example:
  • Any events in our characters’ backstory that caused them pain, loss, heartache, as well as those that brought victory
  • The effects of each event, short and long-term
  • How they were changed by each event
  • How others’ responses affected them
  • Any physical attributes that might have influenced their development and their choices
  • Their family dynamics, their place in society, their wealth or lack thereof
  • The lies they’ve been telling themselves—and what these lies mean for their present behavior and future happiness
  • The lies they’ve been told
  • How these lies—their own and others’—might keep them from getting what they think they want
  • The difference between their perceived versus theirtrue needs
  • Are these ever the same? If not, how will they discover the difference?
  • How do their longings differ from their perceived needs?

There’s something about broken folk struggling toward wholeness that draws readers. If we—readers, writers—have lived at all, we’ve had to face something painful, some place of need that compels us to search for answers and our own happy ending. As writers, especially as writers of inspirational fiction, we share Martin’s longing to touch hearts and minds with things that are real, to touch the soul’s longing for redemption.

We’ll do that best by digging deeply into ourselves to find the emotions we may have hidden, emotions we may not have wanted to face. Not merely the obvious reactions, but the deeper, more surprising, more honest feelings that lurk beneath the surface in each of us.

And then we’ll write about these places and these feelings, and we’ll do it honestly.


Love conquers all? Maybe for some people.

Sailing out of Darkness is the haunting story of mistakes and loss… and the grace that abounds through forgiveness.

Aspen Gold, Selah, and Maggie Finalist

Normandie Fischer
 studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English. Known for her women’s fiction—Becalmed (2013), Sailing out of Darkness (2013), and Heavy Weather (2015)—she ventured into the realm of romantic suspense with the release of Two from Isaac’s House. In early 2016, a novella, From Fire into Fire, will continue the Isaac House saga. Normandie and her husband spent a number of years on board their 50-foot ketch, Sea Venture, sailing in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They now live in coastal North Carolina, where she takes care of her aging mother. You can find Normandie on her websiteFacebook, and Amazon.