In preparation for developing background portraits on characters in my mystery,

(Cosmic Cold Cases of Pittsburgh: Murder at the Canalucci Creamery), I asked some friends to participate in a short survey.

In preparation for developing thorough background portraits on the characters in my novel (Cold Cases of Pittsburgh: Murder at the Canalucci Creamery), I asked several friends to participate in a short survey. 

My characters’ biographies are several pages long, even without the random stories I sometimes write to get a better idea of what adventures, disappointments, and successes comprise their pasts. In a character-driven novel, it is critical that people are likable, hate-able, consistent, inconsistent, messed up, fun, irritating … in essence, like real breathing humans. 

For me, what sets a good novel apart from a mediocre one is that somehow, I fall in love with the character(s). Harry Bosch from Michael Connelly is one of my favorite examples. Even when I want to slap Harry upside his head or shake him straight, I love him and reading about his life. Harry’s struggles and his core beliefs have drawn me in from book one and keep me reading novel after novel.

If we’ve met, you may wind up in a story.

My mind carries around snippets and combinations of people who have crossed my path. I jot random notes here and there to be used in the future. In this day of easily snapped phone pictures, I may even sneak a shot of you. These habits work to help me develop characters like KT and Dia from two early women’s novels (waiting for re-writes), Lizzie and Maeve from my current mystery (querying), and Olivia and Celeste—the two whose story I’m now writing.

Even with these bits and composites of people roaming around in my imagination, this time as I sat down to flesh out the cast, I thought I’d approach the work differently. Since pieces of my friends usually appear in my characters, I thought instead of me picking out their attributes let’s see what my friends had to say about themselves.

I asked:

  • What is your most irritating trait?
  • What trait has served you best?
  • What is your most endearing/favorite trait? 
  • What fictional character is your favorite and why? (Yes, the ladies mentioned a few chaps they like for eye-candy purposes. What can I say? Certain handsome men are hard to resist drooling over.) 

First, I was humbled because each friend answered my inquiry. Second, I knew their answers were honest because of how well I know them. Third, I was struck at how frequently we see a certain quality as annoying when those around us see that peculiarity as an asset.

People, I wisely write, are complex.

That’s a simple statement with a whole lot of depth behind it, right? We are so much more than extravert/introvert, open or closed, conscientious or haphazard. We are an amalgamation of multiple traits—some in direct, unapologetic, conflict with the others. If we were to meet in one type of atmosphere, you would find me outgoing, gregarious, lively. But to meet me under other circumstances, I might be shy and reticent to talk.

Those internal shenanigans going on led me to think about how we have first and second traits. 

My husband Alex’s first trait is strength of character—of conviction. His second trait, unknown to all except those few who know him best: he’s hilarious. On purpose.

Sister Jackie’s (Seester) first trait? Sweet kindness. The second trait that I have seen in her many times in the last several years? Strength to match Superwoman’s. Take no prisoners, defend family like a fortress, kind of strength. Who’d suspect it from such a little thing? 

Younger brother Joey’s (Wojo) first trait? Good natured humor as a fundamental life approach. Second trait? Gentleness to rival Mother Teresa. Stunning. 

Youngest of us, Joanne, aka Punk Kid Sister (aka PKS) has as her first trait thoughtfulness, surprising you with the simplest of gifts that happens to absolutely match what your mood needs right at that moment. Second trait? Sheer determination. When she sets her mind on conquering XX, XX is conquered.

One of my obvious traits: Instigating. As in nicknaming my siblings.

Growing up as a redhead with three black-haired siblings, I got various monikers while they were left with their true names, undistorted or mauled. When I realized that although I would hear a lifetime of Red, Blaze, Freckle-Faced Strawberry, and more, they were Jackie, Joey, and Joanne. My mission was founded. You see how I fared. Or how they faired.

My first trait is jumping into life with both feet compared to an occasionally popping up second trait of caution as I think, Ut oh, what did I do this time?

Discovering our characteristics

Every person has levels of variation in our personalities. Years ago when I worked in California, I had a colleague I’ll call DD. The first time I met her, I thought, this will be a difficult person to get to know. She was in accounting and was stoic and laid back. As what has happened frequently in my life, we ended up bonding over humor. DD stepped out of the women’s room and her long flowing dress had gotten stuck in the waistband of her pantyhose. How many of us ladies have had that happen? I shyly, quietly, pointed it out. She was stricken until she began to laugh. We’ve been friends ever since. First trait: serious introvert. Second trait: open and caring friend.

What are your answers to the above questions? But further, beyond the first obvious things, what’s your second trait? And how do you use these attributes to get through, manage, and enjoy life?

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Read: Do you marvel at the differences between people?