Write an Epitaph for your Character

Pets' Graveyardat Brodsworth Hall

Pets’ Graveyard at Brodsworth Hall

On Sunday, Andrew Marr was asking Scottish politician Alex Salmond what he would like on his epitaph.

Epitaphs were discussed again on the Today program yesterday and it got me thinking.

An epitaph is a couple of sentences epitomising the dead person i.e. summing up how they lived their life.

It struck me that writing an epitaph might be a good way to get to the heart of a character’s psyche.

I’m sure we’ve all come across those character-creation questionnaires which demand that you fill in everything about your protagonists such as date of birth, hair colour, favourite food, best subject at school and secret fear. I’ve tried doing this but find that I get distracted by stuff that isn’t relevant such as my heroine’s shoe size and what she carries in her handbag.

I feel that what I should be doing is getting to the heart of what my character wants from life, what is stopping him or her from getting it and how they are going to overcome this hurdle by their own efforts. It should be possible to do this in two or three short sentences to fit on a gravestone and then, from these few words, it should be possible to work out what else I need to know about the character’s background.

So I’ve had a quick go at doing this for the hero in my current WIP:

‘A devoted father removed from his son by divorce. He endured unemployment and poverty in order to fulfill his paternal drive.’

Alright, it probably needs polishing and editing before the stone mason gets out his chisel but it helps to focus my mind on what this character wants. Knowing this desire will help to shape his actions through the story and keep him on target to get what he wants.

What about you? Does the twenty (or one hundred) questions method suit your way of working or do you do something completely different to create believable characters?

For those of you who do like the questionnaires as a starting point, there’s a whole array of them here.

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  1. #1 by Julia on November 4, 2014 - 3:24 pm

    Brilliant link, Sally. Thanks for finding it and sharing it. I’ll never be stuck again!

  2. #3 by funnylass on November 4, 2014 - 4:01 pm

    Great post Sally. I actually saw it straight after I pressed ‘save’ on a eulogy I have just written for a friend – same age as me – who tragically just died. I also wrote one not so long ago for my very best friend. Whilst I know that this isnt really what your post is about – and that none of us want to DO this for our friends – I have to say that it utterly sharpens the mind (and is hard to read back afterwards…)
    Anyway – I will of course – head off and do this for the characters in the 2nd in my series. But for now I want to share my first line of the eulogy here (not an epitath) “Sarette streamlined through life like an express train. Moving, talking, living at 100 miles an hour.”

    Thanks for this post. I know you didn’t intend it to ‘reach me’ in the way that you did. But I ended the eulogy with “what I always heard from her was this – ‘I’m learning- and I’m loving to learn.’

    Probably sounds crazy from a lady who is in the midst of ‘it for real’ – but I am with you all of the way. Let’s do this for characters – and perhaps even in real time.
    Makes you think! x

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on November 4, 2014 - 5:21 pm

      Thank you for such a moving comment, Funnylass, and I’m glad the post reached you in whatever way. It must be so difficult to write a eulogy for a close friend but from the two extracts that you quote, you’ve done it brilliantly.
      Do you actually have to stand up and deliver these eulogies? I can’t imagine anything more difficult than trying to speak while holding back the tears. Very best wishes.

      • #5 by funnylass on November 4, 2014 - 6:07 pm

        That’s lovely of you to say so. My best friend died (aged 41) just before Xmas and yes I did go to the front and deliver it. I started crying half way through because I looked at the face of her husband…. but I bit my lip and carried on. Only weeks later I ended up doing the same for my Auntie. And now (too soon, too soon) my wonderful friend aged 42 who like me has a 10 yr old and a 6 yr old. This is my beloved Afrikaaner best friend who lives in Namibia. We were all together for a month recently and never dreamed of this happening. This time I won’t be delivering it (would rather go there after the funeral etc) so someone else will read it and translate into Afrikaans.

        The first one I did was for a friend out in Namibia who was killed when we lived there. My husband has a very bleak sense of humour and says I should be running a business along these lines (thank heaven for dark humour! 😉 ) But also did one for a friend of mine on death row in USA who was executed.

        Actually – your post has only just reminded me that my own book opens with a funeral and an African connection… a eulogy. I don’t know why I didn’t see this connection before! Isn’t it interesting who we write ‘so subconsciously’ sometimes?

        I guess I have put to use something of the truism that ‘death seems so much closer in Africa.’ This doesn’t make it right, or allow us to treat those living in Africa as people who are as much deserving of longevity as those ‘in the north’ – but I guess I have put it to creative use and perhaps helped others. I certainly would be much use as the caterer at a funeral! 😉

        I wonder if your idea of writing an epitath would work if you took another leap of imagination and wrote a few paras/pages where you have killed a main character off. I am thinking of doing this with one of mine … so I might try it first.

        Great blog! (I really enjoyed your article in the Kishboo magazine too!)
        Christina x

      • #6 by Sally Jenkins on November 4, 2014 - 6:22 pm

        You’re a very brave lady delivering the eulogy, Christina. I like the idea of writing about the main character being killed (might be a hypothetical death) – it would help get to know the other characters motivations by seeing how they reacted to the death. Glad you enjoyed the Kishboo article.

  3. #7 by Tracy Fells on November 4, 2014 - 4:31 pm

    What a great idea, Sally. This would make a nice feature for one of the writing mags too – it would be a good game for literary quizes to come up with epitaphs for famous novel charactars. Have to admit I’m not a fan of those character profiles where you have to fill in all the details – I like to know the character in my head. But I do like this idea and will try it for my novel.

    • #8 by Sally Jenkins on November 4, 2014 - 6:14 pm

      I like your game idea, Tracy. And now I’m thinking can I stretch this meagre blog post into a full length magazine article?

      • #9 by juliathorley on November 5, 2014 - 3:52 pm

        I agree with Tracy, This would make an interesting article.

      • #10 by Sally Jenkins on November 5, 2014 - 5:48 pm

        I’m just not sure there’s enough material there, Julia …

  4. #11 by susanjanejoness on November 4, 2014 - 5:08 pm

    Hi Sally. The thought of writing the tombstone out for my characters feels a bit sad. I’d like them to be known and loved first, before giving them and ending. If I did that it might put the mockers on them and they’d stay buried forever:))))

    • #12 by Sally Jenkins on November 4, 2014 - 6:17 pm

      Hi Susan. Oh dear, I didn’t mean to bring about premature death for any character! But in real life I think newspapers have lots of obituaries written in advance, just in case someone important pops their clogs. But I wouldn’t like to think anyone had already prepared my epitaph …

  5. #13 by Ann Williams on November 5, 2014 - 10:04 am

    An interesting idea, Sally. A family member has “A life dedicated to her three sons” as her epitaph and it sums up her life succinctly.
    Like funnylass, I have had to write eulogies on a couple of occasions and I found amongst the letters of sympathy received many common phrases, despite the letters coming from people who had known the person in different aspects of their life, which helped in the process.
    Devoted though I am to lists in organising my life they don’t cut the mustard with me for writing character studies so maybe this is the way to go.

    • #14 by Sally Jenkins on November 5, 2014 - 5:47 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ann. I like lists too but they don’t suit character creation for me either.
      Writing a eulogy must be difficult – I hope it’s a long time before I have to do one …

  6. #15 by liz young on November 5, 2014 - 10:41 pm

    I might give this a try – it’ll give me something to focus on during my coming two weeks away from home and work!

    • #16 by Sally Jenkins on November 6, 2014 - 1:40 pm

      Enjoy your fortnight away, Liz. The good thing about the epitaph exercise is that you only need a pen and paper – no laptop required!

  7. #17 by Nicola on November 7, 2014 - 6:36 am

    Hi Sally, thank you for that. I have actually used this exercise for writing my synopsis and introducing my characters. It works a treat.

    • #18 by Sally Jenkins on November 7, 2014 - 8:23 pm

      That’s good to hear, Nicola. Getting characters across in a synopsis can be tricky so glad you found something that works.

  8. #19 by Brent Hightower on November 9, 2014 - 9:33 am

    That’s an interesting concept. I am right at the point in my third (or maybe technically forth novel, for I have one completed in 1st drat) that character development will be very intensive, and I may give that notion a shot.

    • #20 by Sally Jenkins on November 9, 2014 - 1:11 pm

      Thanks for dropping by, Brent. I hope this works for you and helps you focus.

  9. #21 by crimewritingsolutions on December 1, 2014 - 11:42 am

    This is a fantastic post Sally and I’m with you on the character crib sheets. Nothing kills off my ideas quicker than a spreadsheet.

    Susan makes a valid point about killing off your favourite character before they’ve actually populated their pages but it may be helpful to write several epitaphs from the viewpoint of other characters in the story, particularly the antagonist as we tend to idolise our own favourites, where as others may have seen they totally differently

    • #22 by Sally Jenkins on December 1, 2014 - 5:00 pm

      Good idea. We need to know what all the characters in a book think about each other so that they interact realistically and consistently with one another.

      • #23 by susanjanejones on December 1, 2014 - 5:56 pm

        Another idea would be to write the characters shopping list. It often tickles me to read one that may have been left on a trolley at the supermarket. Things like, Dad’s tote, fish, pay Doreen, Cat food, Birthday pressie for Donna…… They give a warmth to a stranger who used the trolley before you. And, Sally, great article in the W.M this month….. interesting and useful.

      • #24 by Sally Jenkins on December 1, 2014 - 7:37 pm

        I like the shopping list idea, Susan. Would really make you think about the characters likes & dislikes. And thanks for the kind words about my article.

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