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Five Ways to Create Memorable Characters by Ellen Birkett Morris

I wrote about the experiences of lots of different women in Lost Girls, but I had the same goal with each character, that she be unforgettable. Here are some of the things I did to make my characters stand out:

  1. The things she carries. Objects are a great way into character. When Teri, a waitress, carries a volume of poetry in her pocket we know she has a rich life outside of work. As Sandy cradles her childhood teddy bear sitting alone in her house we begin to understand the depth of her loneliness, which is amplified when she returns to the breast feeder’s group even though she doesn’t have a baby. When a grieving mother picks up the drum sticks and let’s herself go we know she is finding release. The small carved rose Allison get from her ex-husband reinforces her belief that their “love was a beautiful and spiky thing.”  
  2. An unusual desire.  Desire drives plot and defines character. I work to make each character’s desires unique. In “Lost Girls” the narrator wants to help remember a girl who was kidnapped, so she creates a yearly ritual of leaving items at the kidnapping site. In “Kodachrome” a young girl comes across an adult magazine and instead of noticing the nudity she see the colors and seeks to discover her own colors. Beth in “Life After” mourns her son as she finds herself romantically attracted to his best friend.
  3. The secrets she keeps. A hidden pregnancy, a made up baby, lingering guilt over not stepping in when she suspected her childhood friend was abused, a forbidden romance. Having juicy secrets offers tension to the narrative and is another way to reveal a character’s values.
  4. Make it pop. Archie Bunker,Dragon War, Bewitched. I Dream of Jeannie, The Sony and Cher Show, The Rolling Stones. My characters reference games, television shows and music that plant them firmly in a certain time and show off their interests. Readers love this kind of thing because they call up memories and make connections of their own.
  5. Be bold. There have been so many times when I’ve wanted to rescue my characters from their troubles, but I stop myself. They break taboos and make horrible, even potentially fatal, decisions. I make the hard choices because they are the ones the character would make and are fulfilling to the reader. Go there, it’s worth it to make sure you exploit the dramatic potential of your story.

Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of Lost Girls, short stories, and Surrender, a poetry chapbook. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, South Carolina Review, and other journals. She received the Bevel Summers Prize for short fiction. Morris is a recipient of the Al Smith Fellow from the Kentucky Arts Council. Morris has an MFA from Queens University-Charlotte. To learn more, visit https://ellenbirkettmorris.ink/

Lost Girls by Ellen Birkett Morris

Lost Girls explores the experiences of women and girls as they grieve, find love, face uncertainty, take a stand, find their future, and say goodbye to the past. A young woman creates a ritual to celebrate the life of a kidnapped girl, an unmarried woman wanders into a breast feeder’s support group and stays, a grieving mother finds solace in an unlikely place, a young girl discovers more than she bargained for when she spies on her neighbors. Though they may seem lost, each finds their center as they confront the challenges and expectations of womanhood.

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Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of Lost Girls, short stories, and Surrender, a poetry chapbook. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, South Carolina Review, and other journals. She received the Bevel Summers Prize for short fiction. Morris is a recipient of the Al Smith Fellow from the Kentucky Arts Council. Morris has an MFA from Queens University-Charlotte. To learn more, visit https://ellenbirkettmorris.ink/

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