MFA Workshop: Character Development


Mel is hosting a weekly writer’s workshop on Sundays. Check it out. This week’s assignment: Character Development

I have been writing a novel for about eight years. I began writing it because I wanted to read a book I couldn’t find anywhere: a mystery about a young married woman used to city living, who is confused by her suburb and feels like a fish out of water. Kind of like Ayelet Waldman’s Mommy-Track series but with a newly-married protagonist instead of a new mother.

The “twist” that makes this series different is that Belle solves mysteries with her nosy, buttinsky mother who’s obsessed with reading detective novels and thinks crimes are all around her.

I’ve written about two-thirds of the book. I know how it ends. I know the characters well. BUT: let’s see how well I REALLY know them. I’m going to cover this assignment by using the characters I have developed the most: the mother and daughter. I hope that’s OK: I’m afraid of ruining the plot if I reveal the other characters!!

Name: Belle Banks-Hoffman
Age: 31
Physical traits: Height: 5’9″,
Weight: 130
Hair: Highlighted blond (it’s naturally a mousy brown color)
Eye colour: Grey
Scars: NOT YET!
Distinguishing characteristics: Belle was an anthropology major in college and treats her suburb as if it were her current field assignment: she’s fascinated by the behaviors and quirks of her friends, relatives and neighbors. She finds humor in the absurd and she loves to gossip. She works from home running a travel business. (Symbolizing two conflicting characteristics: she’s restless and craves adventure, but she’s also someone geographically tied to her roots.) She is TERRIFIED of rats.
Basic familial relationships: Newly married to her longtime boyfriend, she has no children. She is not yet completely sold on the idea of having children. Her parents live nearby and her mother is constantly inserting herself into Belle’s life, for both good and ill. She’s very close to her parents and she and her husband eat dinner with them every Sunday.

Breakfast: She usually doesn’t eat breakfast. Because she works from home with no set schedule, Belle wakes up late almost every day (Sunday being no exception) and doesn’t get hungry until noon, when she will eat a greek yogurt or a banana or drink an Odwalla mango smoothie.
Parents: She’s close with her parents, but is often exasperated with her mother, who pushes her out of her comfort zone frequently. She speaks with her parents almost every day. Her mother often calls at the most inopportune times.
Attire: Right now, she is wearing yoga pants, a sports bra, a t-shirt from an African resort, gym socks and shoes. Her hair is in a ponytail and she’s wearing a Giants baseball cap. She wears gym clothes almost all day, in the hopes this will motivate her to go to the gym. Most of the time, it doesn’t.
Politics: Belle is a liberal Democrat, much to the chagrin of her very conservative Republican father. She’s very concerned about the environment and tries to live pretty “green.”
Travel: She would want to travel somewhere with a lot of culture, people-watching and good food. Preferably a European city.
Habitat: She lives in Marin County, a liberal and very wealthy California suburb known for its dazzling scenery, multimillion dollar mansions, sailing clubs and citizens notorious nationwide for being both materialistic yet crunchy.
Self-esteem: Belle is pretty comfortable in her own skin. She knows her husband and family love her, and that gives her a lot of confidence. She is down-to-earth, savvy about human nature, not easily impressed, a bit detached and is often amused by those around her, particularly her mother and her husband. She values her sense of humor and likes that she can clean up well. She wishes she could lose 10 pounds and that she had her mother’s chutzpah.

Name: Samantha Bullock Banks
Age: 59
Physical Traits:
Height: 5’5″
Weight: 120
Hair: Brown (with an assist from the colorist to cover the gray)
Eyes: Brown
Scars: One white shiny scar on her shin from tripping over a hand-saw in her grandfather’s barn, during a typical childhood misadventure.
Distinguishing characteristics: Samantha is a type-A personality who can complete almost any project she chooses to take it on. She gets a lot of inspiration from the female detectives she reads about. (She consumes at least one mystery novels a week, and her favorite detective is Agatha Raisin.) She loves being in control of situations, or at least thinking she’s in control. Very outgoing and talkative, she can befriend almost anyone and has an eerie photographic recall of people’s faces, names and most especially: the tragic things that happened to them. She’s in public relations and has been married to a newspaper reporter for 30 years: she’s always talking him into things he doesn’t want to pursue, like ballroom dancing lessons. She’s concerned her daughter Belle is too passive and feels the need to push her to be more Type-A, like herself.

Breakfast: Samantha is an early riser: she’s usually up by 6 AM. Today, she ate a bowl of the slow-cooked oatmeal she made for both her husband and herself with soy milk, cinnamon and dried cranberries.
Parents: She had a problematic relationship with her mother, who wanted a more “girly” girl and not such a determined tomboy. Her father, a farmer in Kansas, encouraged her to go to college and flee the rural town she grew up in.
Attire: Samantha takes a lot of pride in her appearance and usually wears colorful skirts, a fitted blazer, a silk t-shirt and some type of statement necklace, usually handmade or of the Santa-Fe school. Chicos and Coldwater Creek are her go-to stores.
Politics: Samantha is a conservative Democrat and often works on local campaigns or for voter registration drives. She refuses to discuss politics with her Republican husband.
Travel: Samantha would want to go on a cruise. In her dreams, she would travel on a luxury liner like the QE II, and there would be a murder for her to solve onboard.
Habitat: Samantha is a middle-class woman who lives in a mostly upper class enclave. She and her husband live in a nice home but they worry about their retirement.
Self-esteem: Samantha seems supremely confident, but she worries about facing a lack of control: in the world at large, in her family. Her motto: “The more I interfere, the better the outcome!”

Would you be compelled to read a mystery about these characters?

Belle and Samantha now have their own Pinterest boards!

Belle’s is here
Samantha’s is here



Filed under writing

16 responses to “MFA Workshop: Character Development

  1. It sounds like you have your characters pretty well thought out. I guess these are the two protagonists? You might flesh out a part on fears (I know Belle is afraid of rats, but why? Did something happen in her childhood?) and aspirations, as well as five or six things in a list of likes and pet peeves.

    I could see this producing an interesting story. Characters help the story along immensely of course—would this be a character driven story? Or plot driven? Good luck, and keep it up!

    • Great clarifications: thanks. Belle is the protagonist (she narrates the story) but Samantha is basically the force who propels the narrative forward. She’s pushy and hopefully funny.

      The book is pretty plot-driven (so much so that I’m afraid to reveal more characters, although I could write up Jon, the husband and Peter, the Dad without spoiling anything) but I hope to create strong, likable characters as well?

      Here’s more:
      Belle is terrified of rats because one day when she was a little girl, she was about to step out her front door when she, for some strange, intuitive reason, looked down first at the welcome mat. And saw a giant, dead rat blocking the upside down script usually visible in the cheerful straw mat from Cost Plus. Her family cat had chosen to express his love in the grossest of ways. Worst of all, she wasn’t wearing shoes at the time…

      Belle is not sure what she aspires to. She doesn’t enjoy her work that much, but she’s not sure what else she can do. She’s pretty sure she wants to have children, but has been a bit concerned by her friends who are parents. They seem very frazzled and stressed. She’s kind of muddling through, after moving out of the fast-paced dazzling city world she excelled living in.

      Samantha’s dreams are more simple. In her mind, she already is who she wants to be: an amateur detective, like Agatha Raisin. She also wants those she loves to be happy. And she’s a bit forceful about that.

      Likes and pet peeves coming….

      • Belle’s Likes And Pet Peeves:

        1. Fine dinning (ie: Chez Panisse, Boulevard, Gary Danko)
        2. Traveling with her husband Jon, preferably to Europe
        3. Running in Blackie’s Pasture, her favorite trail
        4. Reading: her favorite book is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but don’t tell her mother!
        5. GOSSIPING
        6. Watching the show 48 Hour Mysteries
        7. Looking at the Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware catalogues

        Pet Peeves
        1. Her husband’s ugly hand-me-down couch
        2. When her mother calls or shows up at her house before 10 AM
        3. Getting up early
        4. Working out at her gym, which is full of douchebags
        5. Cooking

      • Samantha’s Likes and Pet Peeves:

        1. When her favorite items go on sale at Coldwater Creek
        2. Going to the library and checking out a new mystery
        3. Ballroom dancing
        4. Making new recipes from “Cooking Light”
        5. Going to parties
        6. Watching any BBC detective series, but particularly “Midsommer Mysteries”
        7. Going back to the Midwest to visit relatives and friends

        Pet Peeves
        1. Her husband talking politics or watching Fox News
        2. Her daughter’s ambivalence about anything
        3. When there’s nothing to do
        4. When her son-in-law acts imperiously
        5. Snobs

  2. How fabulous! 🙂 I’ve been playing with the assignment, too, and have a few potential short stories growing out of the characters. Huzzah!

    I’d love to read your mystery.

  3. Thanks for sharing 🙂 I definitely feel like I want to learn more about these characters.

  4. That is so cool that you’re working on a book! From what you wrote, i have an easier time picturing Samantha than Belle. That might be because the interfering mother is somewhat of a stereotype (which could be fine as the story is fleshed out). Belle seems very well-balanced, which makes it a little hard for me to imagine where the tension in the story would come from. But i guess, as you said, it’s mainly plot-driven.

    Feel free to share more here – I would love to hear more about this book of yours.

    • These are good questions: thank you for making me think this out!

      Belle is the narrator, and I see her as a (in my dreams) sort of modern-day Elizabeth Bennett (wry, amused by the follies of others) and curious person propelled forward mostly by the pushiness of her mother. Belle’s not perfect: she’s a big gossip, and that gets her into trouble. Samantha is, I hope, both amusing and annoying: that person in life who makes things more interesting by pushing Belle beyond her comfortable limits into adventures. She’s hopefully human and understandable, but mostly humorous. But not too broad?

  5. Yes!! I’m already completely attached to the characters, they are completely intriguing and I can already feel their relationship.

    One thing that popped out to me is Belle being 5’9″ and 130 lbs and wanting to lose 10lbs… but I didn’t catch at all that she was crazy skinny or has issues around weight. 5’9″ and 130 is skinny in my world. In high school I was a stick figure at 5’9″ and 140lbs. Just something that caught my eye 😉

    • Yeah: good point. Belle’s surrounded by stick figures who starve themselves, and a point I’d like to make is how stupid it is that she WANTS to lose 10 pounds 😉

      • Yeah, I like this! (Coming from someone who is 5’3″ and 127). My thought about Belle, was “really, just a smoothie at noon? I wish I had that appetite!” Are you significantly attached to her name. I know her name might be a really personal choice, but it’s a little too close to “Bella”…my damn brain went straight to that doormat of a heroine and unfortunately that’s all I see even though “Belle” is a completely different, much more rounded character.

        Looking forward to following your progress!

      • OK: The Belle story…heh. Nine years ago, her name was Bella. Yep, before Twilight. I named her after Bella Abzug. I LOVED that name. And then, I kept hoping that the whole Twilight thing would die down, and, yeah, no. She was a Bella in my head forever, then subtly she shifted to Belle. I can’t imagine her as any other name…

  6. Um, yes, I’d totally read your novel and now that I know more about it and the characters involved, prepared to be bugged by me to hurry up and finish it.

    And this is kind of funny…my mom has a scar on her shin from tripping over a saw. 😉

  7. I love these characters so far. it sounds like you know them pretty well. And I would love to read your book–so hurry up and finish it!

  8. Mel

    You do know these characters in and out (and based on the description, I would totally pick up this book). But you only had to do one extra fact per character per day. Just breakfast for the first character, just parents for the second 🙂

  9. a bit of an off-top: I once toyed with the idea of becoming a writer. I love writing – I even wrote books in my tween and teen years – but I never got around to it. I couldn’t figure out which language should I pick – my English will never be good enough for it’s my second language, and my Russian is getting poorer and poorer (sometimes I wonder why do I even want to get Timothy to speak Russian). But.
    Having read this post, I realized that I have never been serious about writing. This was eye-opening for me – how thoroughly you should think about your character, complete with place of birth an grandma’s up-bringing.
    Thanks for the eye-opening post 🙂

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