Monthly Archives: July 2015

How Location Impacts Character

Top of the MountainStaying with Linda Seger’s, Creating Unforgettable Characters, we learn about the impact that location has on character.

My usual advice to my students is to write about what they know in order to retain the sense of verisimilitude of characters and locations — but this is not always possible. You may need a scene to play out in a country you never visited, or include a character you’ve never encountered for real — after all, I don’t know about you, but I can’t place the last time I chatted to a Martian.

That’s where research and a sensitive imagination come in. For make no mistake, location deeply influences many aspects of character. The energetic rhythm of Philadelphia in Witness, differs from the slow paced life on an Amish farm. The speech patterns of New York’s Working Girl differ from those of the West in Electric Horseman.

If you were writing The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, you would want use your knowledge of the oppressive heat, humidity, and constant rain in the tropics in order to capture your characters’ sense of oppression and claustrophobia.

If you were writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest you would need, like Dale Wasserman who wrote the play based on Ken Kesey’s novel, to visit several asylums. Dale even arranged with one cooperative psychiatrist to have himself committed in order to do undercover research close up.

In my forthcoming novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, lives in Mission Beach on Northern Queensland’s tropical coast. The heat, dress, and even the way houses are constructed to withstand the cyclones of the region are integral to the authentic rendition of the story. I spend several years in the area and lived through one category five cyclone, so additional research was minimal.

The advice is sound: Write about places and people you know. Failing that, conduct research by visiting the actual locations you intend to render, or watch as many documentaries on the area, and do as many interviews with the people that are familiar with it, as you can. Your writing will be more authentic for it.


Write about places and people you know. Fill in the gaps by conducting rigorous research.


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Why Writers are Dr. Frankensteins

Man superimposed with galaxies and cyclonePeople often ask writers: Where do your characters come from? Where do you look for them? How do you select them?

The truth is that characters are most often stitched together from bits and pieces inspired by the people we have met, united by a common premise and animated by the necessities of plot.

And, like Dr. Frankenstein, writers pour themselves into their creation. We infuse our characters with our spirit and have them play out our hopes and fears.

But like Frankenstein’s monster, our creations sometimes rebel. They take on a life of their own. The result is no longer the sum of its parts. This is when our voice takes over, shaping the narrative. Some call this the muse. For me, this voice is a phantom conductor molding the numerous notes into a seamless symphony.

In my forthcoming novel, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos, is a man struggling to marry Quantum Theory with General Relativity. At the same time, he is haunted by the death of his wife, a tragedy that occurred years previously – something he never got over.

My protagonist is drawn from many sources. A beloved math teacher in high school, a cousin in Greece, friends and neighbours in South Africa, England and Australia, several famous physicists whose biographies I have studied. There are even elements of myself in him. My love for mathematics, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics is no secret.

But ultimately, the character will remain a corpse unless I breathe life into him. This breath typically takes the form of bestowing him with human purpose.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has one impossible goal. To travel back to the past and prevent his wife from dying. It is this inner obsession that brings the disparate aspects of his personality together and drives the story forward. Without it Benjamin is a mere assemblage of traits serving the plot.


Assemble your characters from a variety of sources, but infuse them with life by providing them with a powerful purpose.


If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Unlocking Character Through Backstory

Key in box lockMost novels or screenplays focus on one specific story. Linda Seger, in her book, Creating a unforgettable Characters, calls this the front story. This is the actual story the writer wants to tell.

But in order to successfully tell this story we need to understand the reasons the characters act in the way they do. We need to understand the traumas, delights, and crisis of their childhood, the challenges of their adult life — we need to understand their past.

The backstory grants us two types of information leading to such an understanding.

One is of past occurrences that impact the construction of the story. Hamlet and Citizen Kane have backstories we need to understand to make sense of the tale.

Other information forms part of the character biography. This information is never directly given to us, but understanding the attitudes and values of a character through action or dialogue, allows us to predict and understand their motivation.

In Unforgiven, a deputy discusses the Sheriff’s toughness in a conversation with other deputies: “Little Bill Scared? Little Brill grew up in the streets of Kansas. Little Bill ain’t scared. He’s just no carpenter.”

Little Bill Daggett’s obsession with his roof and lack of carpentry skill reflects his failure to prevent the rain from getting into his house. It speaks to a deeper flaw — his failure to keep other elements from entering into his life; it hints at his forthcoming death, resulting from his inability to keep Will Manny out of his town.

Both types of information flows, then, serve an important function – supporting the forward story through essential details that explain character behavior.


Use backstory techniques to motivate and explain character actions.