Creative Characterization – Like a Good Neighbor ~ by Shelley Gray

Characterization: Like Meeting Your Next-Door Neighbors
By Shelley Gray

I’ve often told people that creating characters is a lot like meeting new next-door neighbors. Whenever new neighbors have moved in near us, I seem to go through a four-step process. At the risk of seeming like a nosy neighbor, I thought it might be fun to compare the process of characterization to starting a relationship with the folks next door.

Step 1: Peek and Greet. When someone new moves in, it’s human nature to take a quick peek at them. You form a first impression. You look to see about how old they are, if they have kids, if they look friendly.
When I begin a new book, I concentrate on physical information such as hair and eye color, ethnicity, age, glasses, scars, etc. I keep track of things in a spiral notebook. I write each character’s name at the top of a page and write down the characters’ basic information as I create it. Sometimes I even cut out magazine pictures and tape them in.
Step 2: Go Visiting. A few days after a someone new moves into our neighborhood, it’s customary to give them some cookies or a loaf of bread. Usually, we end up visiting for a couple of minutes and learn basic information about them—jobs, where they moved from, do they seem warm and friendly? Standoffish? Grumpy?

I ‘visit’ with my characters when I’m done with the first three or four chapters. During this time, I’ll go back over the part I’ve written and add information about each character. Of course, a big part of all that is developing their goals, motivation and conflict. I try to do this with every character in the book, not just the main characters. I figure if someone wanders into my book’s pages, I need to be kind enough to give them a personality and backstory.

Step 3: Bus Stop Talk. When my kids were little, all the moms would usually congregate at the bus stop and visit until the kids hopped on the bus. This was the best way to get to know other moms better. We discovered who got up early and looked like they were ready to conquer anything by eight am. We learned who worked out all the time. Who was patient with their kids. Who kind of wasn’t. You get the idea.

Around the time I’ve written a hundred pages, I revisit my characters to make sure that I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. If the characters seem flat, I spend sometime ‘fleshing’ them out. I give my characters likes and dislikes. People are interesting because they have quirks. Sometimes they’re big quirks, like a fear of some sort. Other times, I create favorite foods, activities that they like or don’t like, favorite sayings or words. Habits, too. For example, maybe a character always checks in with her best friend or mother at nine o’clock every night. Yep, I do my best to add all this in my spiral notebook, too.

Step 4. You Now Know Your Neighbors Next Door! Usually, by the time the new neighbors have lived next door for a couple of months, we’ve sized each other up. Sometimes we’ve clicked. Sometimes not so much. But usually after four or five months, we know each other pretty well. We have a relationship now.
By the time I’m three-fourths of the way through a manuscript, the plot is set, I know my characters, and I know exactly what is going to happen to them by the time I type The End.
This is the time to really check the whole cast of characters to make sure no one seems superficial or forgettable. Little adjustments are made here. Sometimes it’s giving someone a new name, sometimes it’s writing a little bit more of a backstory or giving them a red bike or car or coat. I basically try to give each character the opportunity to shine, even if it’s in a not-so-nice way.

If you’ve never taken the time to really get to know your characters, I hope you’ll give this method a try.

And if you happen to get some new neighbors sometime soon, I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know them as much as your readers will enjoy getting to know the characters in your book.


Shelley Shepard Gray writes Amish romances for Harper Collins inspirational line, Avon Inspire and historical romances as Shelley Gray for Harper Collins Christian Publishers. Her novels have been Holt Medallion winners and Inspirational Readers Choice and Carol finalists. Shelley’s novels have appeared on both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.  
To date, Shelley has published over fifty novels for a variety of publishers. Her novels have been highlighted in the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washington Post, Time Magazine, and USA Today. She has also been interviewed on NPR as well as numerous regional radio stations.

Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make at a Crime Scene ~ Colleen Collins

Colleen Collins is a professional private investigator and multi-published author. Her
current novel, The Zen Man, is a murder mystery featuring a private eye man-and-woman
team, which she calls a “21st-century Nick and Nora”
story. When Colleen isn’t writing or investigating, she enjoys cooking,
gardening, and trying to train a willful Rottweiler named Jack Nicholson.


Top 5 Mistakes
Writers Make at a Crime Scene

Next to confessions, crime scenes contain the most
first-hand evidence explaining the who, what and whys of a crime. 
Unfortunately, sometimes writers get aspects of a crime scene wrong,
which puts a dent in the credibility of a story.

David Swinson, a retired Washington, DC, detective
and author of A Detailed Man (available in most bookstores and Amazon), calls
these dents “Aw c’mon, man” moments. “I have been to countless crime scenes,” says David.  “When
you respond to a scene that is related to a violent crime, especially
homicide, even the smallest mistake can ruin the outcome of the case.
I’m especially tough on some authors who write crime fiction — it’s
what we in law enforcement call an ‘Aw c’mon, man’ moment.’”

Let’s look at the top five mistakes, or “Aw c’mon,
man” blunders, in no particular order, that writers make at crime

Using incorrect
terminology. One popular misconception is that the words cartridges
and bullets
are synonymous. A bullet, the projectile that fires from a rifle, revolver
or other small firearm, is one part of a cartridge. Two other words
that writers sometimes use interchangeably: spent bullets and spent casings. A spent bullet, sometimes called a slug, is
one that has stopped moving after being fired. Spent bullets are often
pretty distorted after hitting objects on their way to a resting place.
A spent casing is one from which a bullet has been fired. Although spent
bullets and casings might be found at a crime scene, casings are more
likely to be lying in plain sight.

Mishandling evidence. “First rule of any crime
scene investigation,” says Swinson, “is when you observe what is
obviously evidence, leave it where it is. Don’t move it!” 
An “Aw c’mon, man” crime scene scenario for Swinson: “Spent
casings are visible on the floor beside the body, a semi auto is a few
feet away, and a little baggy that contains what appears to be a white
powdery substance is near the weapon. The detective picks up the gun
and inspects it and then picks up the baggy, opens it and smells or
takes a taste using his finger. This makes me crazy! A detective would
never pick up crucial evidence before it is photographed or, if necessary,
dusted for prints. This contaminates evidence and can jeopardize the
prosecutor’s case. And a detective would never, ever pick up what
might be illegal narcotics and taste it!”

Mishandling evidence includes placing it in plastic bags. According
to Joseph
L. Giacalone, a retired detective sergeant, former commanding
officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad and author of Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators
(Looseleaf Law Publications, Inc.), “The biggest mistake I still see on TV and in movies is that evidence
which may contain biological evidence is put in plastic evidence bags.
I guess they want the viewer to see the item, but it is the worst thing
you can do with that type of evidence. Plastic builds up moisture and
degrades your evidence, even completely destroying it in most cases.”
Types of paper containers for collecting evidence include packets, envelopes
and bags.

Contaminating the crime scene: Detectives and others ambling about
and speculating. Too often in stories, writers depict scenes
where detectives and others meander onto a crime scene, then stand around
the body and speculate what might have occurred. While they’re speculating,
know what else they’re doing? Contaminating the crime scene. Or as one detective phrased
it, “They’re creating a defense attorney’s wet dream.”

Shaun Kaufman, a Denver, Colorado, criminal defense
attorney, agrees. “Cross examining a detective or patrol officer about
a crime scene is fun when it has been trampled on by officers, detectives,
ambulance personnel and possibly fire personnel. I can ask about hairs
and other biological evidence on their clothes as they sit there on
the stand. I can ask where each hair, thread, crumb came from. After
about five minutes it is pretty clear that the officers, detectives,
paramedics and firemen can pick stuff up anywhere and leave it at a
crime scene. This is why real-life crime scene investigators don paper
booties and coveralls when they work a scene to minimize contamination
with their own hair, fluids and whatever else they were wearing when
they got to work.”

Contaminating the crime scene: Too many people. Giacalone says
one of his pet peeves in stories is when a writer depicts too many people
at a crime scene. “Wow, talk about contamination,” he says, “it
looks like the policeman’s ball in the crime scene. Very few people
should be allowed in the actual crime scene: the case investigator,
[his/her] partner, their boss, crime scene tech, the medical examiner
and if necessary the assistant district attorney.”

In addition, Giacalone offers these tips to writers about crime scenes:

  • Investigators
    should interview the first officer at the scene before entering the
    scene. They should also ask the first officer to take them through the
    crime scene so they do not contaminate the scene any further.
  • Investigators
    should avoid going directly to the body in a homicide. They have to
    fight that natural tendency to go right to it because they may destroy
    evidence inadvertently when doing do. (Along these lines, an additional
    “Aw c’mon, man” mistake Swinson often sees in stories is when
    detectives respond to a homicide scene and immediately move the body, search
    the pockets and put certain items of possible evidence in their own
  • A
    gatekeeper (uniformed police officer) must be at every crime scene to
    prevent unauthorized members, as well as media, from gaining entry to
    the scene. The gatekeeper keeps a written record of who enters the scene
    and why they are there. 

A private eye touching a dead body. Being a private investigator
in real life, this is one of my pet peeves in stories. Can’t count
the number of times I’ve read a scene (or seen in a film) where the
private eye stumbles upon a body and rummages through its clothes or
touches the body itself. Uh, tampering with evidence charges? Also,
unless the private eye has snapped on a pair of latex gloves, he/she’s
also leaving their DNA all over the crime scene.

Use these tips and techniques to add plausibility
to crime scenes in your stories. Thank you to Novel Rocket and Kelly
Klepfer for hosting this guest article!  

Book Blurb

Just as washed-up criminal defense attorney, life-long Deadhead and
current PI Rick Levine decides to get relicensed as a lawyer, he’s
charged with killing one and ends up in the slammer with a half-mil
bail. Released on bond, Rick and his girlfriend Laura have 30 days to
find the real killer. Dodging bullets, a kidnapping and the FBI, they
eventually learn that true redemption begins at home.

“Move over Sam Spade, Nick and Nora; make room
for a Denver who-dun-it, Colleen Collins’s The Zen Man. Brilliant and fast-paced writing. I couldn’t
put it down.” ~ Donnell Ann Bell, Award-Winning Author of The Past Came Hunting


Mark Capell is a writer, director and animator residing in London.

I wonder if I’m the only TV director with an allergy to the word ‘action’. I’ve used any substitute I could think of – ‘go’, ‘in your own time’, ‘when you’re ready’, even just waving my finger. Maybe that allergy was a sign that I should try something else – which is why I’ve decided to write novels. But how did a history as a documentary TV director affect my methodology, writing style, even my attitude?
It was while I was editing a book trailer that I got the urge. I’d had it before but I’d fended it off by writing a screenplay. After a couple of years of development hell in Hollywood I decided to do some proper writing (screenwriters hate that joke). And with the Kindle publishing revolution gathering apace, getting something out there appealed greatly. It had to be done.
I found I could use a lot of my TV skills as a director but also that some of them were a hindrance. Here’s what I learned in the writing of my thriller, ‘Run, Run, Run‘.
TV DIRECTORS KNOW HOW TO TELL STORIES – TV and film know how to get from A to B. It’s what they do well. It’s what I was taught too. The best book I read when learning to direct was called ‘On Directing’ by David Mamet. The title is misleading because it’s mostly about storytelling. In it he says the only question you should concern yourself with when deciding on how to tell the story is ‘what happens next?’ He says he became a better writer once he started directing movies because of the need to concentrate on ‘what happens next’.
THE SHOT LIST METHOD – When you direct a TV show you compile a shot list. This is like a storyboard but with words. For instance, a documentary about a murder at a factory might begin: wide shot of factory building; closer on factory gates; tight shot of worker’s legs as they file in. Then, to move the story on, and to provide contrast with the daily humdrum, cut to a body lying on the floor, examined by scene of crime detectives. I used this skill to outline my story. Many times I found myself imagining my chapter as a series of shots, and set about describing them. But you have to be careful. What can make an interesting shot sometimes doesn’t make an interesting paragraph.

POINT OF VIEW – In telling stories with a camera there is only one true point of view – the camera’s. I know screenplays contain description such as ‘From David’s P.O.V. we see the knife in Frank’s hand’. But it is still the camera, so the image is largely uninflected. Writing a novel made me fully realise just how important and how exciting it is to play with point of view. It’s what separates novels from movies.

SHORT CHAPTERS AND FAST FILM EDITING – As I was setting out to write a thriller, I thought I’d read the world’s bestselling thriller writer, James Patterson (along with Lee Child, Robert Harris and, of course, any excuse to visit my old friend, John Le Carre). Patterson has settled on a technique of using short chapters for his thrillers to keep tension high. It’s the same in TV and movies. If you want to keep the action fast, you shorten the length of a shot. One of my favourite directors is Paul Greengrass, the director of ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ and ‘United 93’. He’s a master of fast cutting and moving a story along quickly without skimping on detail. As my novel is a chase I also used short chapters to keep the action moving. A couple of times I broke this rule when the drama became so intense I wanted to linger in the moment. It works, unless you try to cram too much into a short chapter or end it with an unnecessary cliffhanger, which can lead to melodrama.
DID BEING A TV DIRECTOR HELP OR HINDER? I think it helped enormously. What both have in common is storytelling. And, as a TV director in the editing room, you have to be brutal in cutting out anything that doesn’t further the story. Both require you to create memorable images that will transport the reader/viewer to another world. But what I did learn is that you have to respect the differences in the forms too. It’s no good trying to make a novel exactly like a movie. The novel has wonderful attributes and strengths all of its own. That’s why we read and why we write.
Well, that’s it. “Cut, that’s a wrap,” as they say. Or maybe I should start saying, “Shut the laptop, that’s a completed draft.”

Author Update ~ Gayle Roper ~ Revisited

The three P’s –

perseverance, preparation, and prayer…

Gayle Roper is the award winning author of more than forty books. She has been a Christy finalist three times for her novels Spring Rain, Summer Shadows, and Winter Winds.

Gayle enjoys speaking at women’s events across the nation and loves sharing the powerful truths of Scripture with humor and practicality.

Gayle is married to to Chuck Roper and has been “for more years than seems possible!”. Gayle and Chuck live in southeastern Pennsylvania where they enjoy their family of two great sons, two lovely daughters-in-law, and the world’s five most wonderful grandchildren.

When she’s not writing, or teaching at conferences, Gayle enjoys reading, gardening, and eating out every time she can talk Chuck into it.

I know you’ll credit God with your long career in Christian publishing…but….what do you believe are key characteristics to develop to stick around for the long haul?

The three P’s – perseverance, preparation, and prayer.

Perseverance is necessary because it is the long haul, and it isn’t a straight path. In the more than forty years I’ve been involved in Christian publishing, I’ve had thirteen different publishers depending on the topic, genre and what was selling at the time. Before Christian fiction became such a powerhouse, I wrote nonfiction and children’s fiction. All that time I considered mysel f a novelist, but novels were still a hard sell. So I persevered.

And I became involved in Christian writers conferences. First I just attended. Then I became a volunteer. Then staff. Then a teacher. It was through conferences that I both prepared and persevered. After I sold seven books, I had a five year fallow period where I couldn’t place anything. It was writers conferences that kept me going. And I couldn’t think of anything else I’d like to do.

Of course I’ve prayed hard through the years. And I’ll tell you, my main prayer has been, “Lord, do whatever you want to do with this manuscript. I’d love it to be a best seller, but that’s Your choice. Do as You will.” For me, an achiever, this prayer is gut-wrenching, but as a Christian, I didn’t know how else I could pray.

Do you still struggle in an area of writing? You teach, you publish, but is there one area that really is challenging for you?

The biggest area of challenge to me is sales–or lack of numbers I’m happy with. I’ve won numerous awards for my stuff including a RITA, two Carol Awards, and I’ve finaled for a Christy three times. But my sales numbers have never been what I want. I think this is the story of most writers, but that doesn’t make it hurt less. It’s my dismal numbers that make that “Do what You want” prayer so hard to pray. But somehow, is spite of this disappointment, I’ve been able to continue publishing. It’s truly a God-thing.

Do you have an area that used to trip you up that you have finally conquered? What is it and how did you wrestle it into submission?

I hate self-promotion. As the industry has changed through the years, authors are expected to do more and more of their own promotion. The thought of it makes me shudder. I’m sure I drive my publishers nuts. I’ve a new title just releasing, SHADOWS ON THE SAND, and I’ve tried a couple of new avenues of promoting the book. We’ll see if they make a difference. Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew what it was that made a book catch on? Then we’d have a plan that, while painful to writers like me, would at least work.

If you didn’t put the effort and heart and soul into your writing, where would you invest it?

Do you know, I don’t know the answer to this question. Back when our sons were getting ready to go to college, my husband and I had several discussions about my going back to teaching school. Regular income and all that, you know. The thought of going back into the classroom made my stomach hurt. I knew I wouldn’t have the emotional energy to teach every day and still write anything much. Not that I don’t like teaching; I love it. I’d just gotten used to teaching at writers conferences where people came on purpose and actually listened to you. He and I both decided I was a writer and teacher of writing through and through, and we needed to honor that calling in spite of the financial cost.

What are the top three things you think newcomers need to know about publishing today? Why?

1. It’s a highly competitive field, so be prepared for the emotional cost of competing.

2. Learn the craft. Study how-to books. Sit under established writers. Read like crazy in the genre you want to write, both general market and Christian. Listen to audio books of good writers to hear things like rhythms and tone. Never stop learning how to write better.

3. Take the time to do it right. Anyone can slap up something as an ebook, but is it worthy of your name? How embarrassing to have to send out corrected versions because you jumped the gun. How sad to blow your chance by showing an editor or agent a book that’s not ready.