Developing characters through experience

Yesterday, after I went for a morning swim, I locked my keys in the car, followed by a comedy of events that made me an hour late for work. After getting grease and dirt on the front of my new white, wool pant suit while trying to find the magnetized set of keys that I keep under the car, I drove onto Interstate 440 going the wrong way. (The interstate is not known as the baffling beltline for nothing). Signs are labeled inner and outer beltline, north or south, which doesn’t help me to know which will take me east to Durham. So I pulled off 440 and got back on only to be funneled in the same wrong direction away from Durham. I took the next exit trying for an alternate route on 70, but instead got lost in Durham. But that’s not the reason that I added this category to my blog (Life Comes at me Hard).

Yesterday, life slammed me hard. Wham! Right into my past. I haven’t seen my father in ten years. During that time I’ve talked with him only twice on the phone, once two months ago and once yesterday. When people ask me if I’m close to my father, I say no. I never expand upon that unless someone asks. Usually they don’t, and when they do I almost never tell the whole truth. It has taken me years of therapy to reach the level of denial I thought I had achieved. See my essay: Yes I Have a Therapist–and I Believe Everyone Should.

I thought I had worked through my sadness and anger toward my father. I didn’t think I had any feelings for him left. Then I got the following e-mail from my aunt, my father’s sister.

I just talked with him (my father) on the phone. He does not have email because he is not able to use it. He has a walker with a seat on it and a wheel chair. He went to the doctor again. The doctor said the radiation killed 20% of his nerves. He is like a very old man. He has not been out of the house for 2 months. They simply cannot get him into the car. He is very helpless. He sleeps in his chair. He would like to hear from you girls. He says he can’t get well unless God heals him.


After reading the e-mail I found myself crying while driving to the swimming pool. Hence my confusion while driving around in circles after swimming. My father has recovered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But after the tumors were removed from his spine and he endured the chemo and radiation that was necessary to treat the cancer, his muscles have atrophied from lack of use.

I pictured my father, the man who raised me, the man who abused me, now in a wheel chair unable to leave the house. Maybe he deserved it. Be he was also the man who took me on 30 mile bike rides as a little girl, who played endless card games with my sisters and me, never tiring of our games, who played softball with us in our backyard. That active, energetic, youthful man was sleeping in a wheelchair.


That blast from the past could be the key to my writing success. As a writer I can use my bad relationship with my father to develop the new women characters that I create. Because girls model our male romantic ideal on our relationship with our father, he teaches us how we should expect to be treated by males when we get older. He teaches us by the way he speaks and acts toward us and the women in his life. It is from our fathers that girls learn lessons about the world of males. From her father a woman gains first-hand knowledge of how ordinary men think, act and speak.

Fiction writers must create imperfect, flawed characters because that is the way people are.

Most of the women characters I relate to in the books that I love to read are flawed, like myself, many due to their childhoods. In David Baldacci’s Simple Genius the lead female’s personality changed due to an event from her childhood. I can’t spoil the book to say what it was. In Kathy Reich’s series of books that the TV show Bones is based on, the lead character, Tempe, is a divorced recovering alcoholic who has trouble with relationships.

So, I can create a woman character who does not have a loving dependable father. This imaginary person may actually seek men who deny her needs or reject her. She may always be haunted by the thought that she is unlovable. To compensate, she may become sexually active prematurely or she may fear intimacy. She will be imperfect and readers will be able to empathize with her.

When she drives onto the baffling beltline going the wrong direction, or locks her keys in her car because her sick father is on her mind, readers will believe in her. When she looks in her rearview window, readers may see themselves.

One thought on “Developing characters through experience

  1. I like what you had to say about fathers and daughters–but it unnerved me a bit when I thought about the males characters in my writing (nevermind the men in my past). You’ve given me something to think about–thanks!

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