Mary DeMuth

Mary E. DeMuth is an expert in Pioneer Parenting. She enables Christian parents to navigate our changing culture when their families left no good faith examples to follow. Her parenting books include Authentic Parenting in a Postmodern Culture (Harvest House, 2007), Building the Christian Family You Never Had (WaterBrook, 2006), and Ordinary Mom, Extraordinary God (Harvest House, 2005). Mary also inspires people to face their trials through her real-to-life novels, Watching the Tree Limbs (nominated for a Christy Award) and Wishing on Dandelions (NavPress, 2006). Mary has spoken at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, the ACFW Conference, the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, and at various churches and church planting ministries. Mary and her husband, Patrick, reside in Texas with their three children. They recently returned from breaking new spiritual ground in Southern France, and planting a church.

Make Heroes and Villains Come to Life

It was only when I removed the sulfurous man that my manuscript started taking shape.

When I wrote my first novel, Crushing Stone (not yet published), I naïvely thought that I must have a villain to make the book sing. This story is loosely based on the life of my great-grandmother whose husband died in a tragic rock quarry accident, leaving her to care for seven children during the Great Depression.

In my story, I created an evil villain who orchestrated the “accident.” Instinctively, I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t place my finger on it . . . until I reread my description of the villain. He sounded like Hitler. Maybe even worse. More like Satan incarnate. I used words like malevolent and sweating and conniving and calculating. He was a liar. He was overweight and greedy, had no regard for his family or his workers or the town he lived in. Like Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life, my villain lived and breathed angry venom.

It was only when I removed the sulfurous man that my manuscript started taking shape. But then I ran into other issues. My heroine seemed too good. She bore the weight of grief beautifully. She smiled. She kept working. She responded in a godly manner to the horrific experiences around her. She was Pollyanna of the Depression.

At that time I was having difficulty connecting well with my kids. I’d become detached from them, and I couldn’t find my way back. In the midst of my journey, I gave my heroine the same issue. She became real when I made her disconnect from the grief of her children, turning into a stoic rock rather than an approachable mother. Once she had that flaw, the story took on dimension.

So how do we create real-life characters without producing stereotypes? How do we humanize villains and give flaws to our heroes? By observing life.

Keep your eyes open this week, a pen ready at your side. Jot down notes about folks (just don’t share them!). Observe the complexities of people. What makes your best friend happy?

When does your ten-year-old get angry? Why did that church worker stray from his marriage? Underneath all this is motivation.

What would motivate your character to do good? Would it be a pure motive, or does he want something?

What motivates a mother to abandon her family by simply walking out the door and never coming back? By watching others, we get an observer’s view of motivation and action.

But then it’s time to go deeper. Become fascinated by people. Ask questions. Be curious (not merely to give you fodder for stories, but because you’re fascinated by people as Jesus was). Pray for those who struggle. Messy yourself with folks’ needs and problems. The more you interact with people—loving them, hearing them, caring for them—the more you’ll be able to flesh out your characters.

Take notes when you read a terrific character. I loved Swede in Peace Like a River. Why? She spoke her mind. She had a sharp wit. She got angry quickly. She wrote cowboy poetry. She loved her brother. She had a mean streak. She lived on that page for me. Find characters who sweep you into their worlds, then ask yourself why. What did the author do to entice you so? Description? Dialogue? Texture? Temperament?

Creating realistic characters is not as simple as figuring out learning style, hair color, build, likes, and dislikes. A character is the representation of a human being—gloriously flawed, terribly inconsistent, wildly unpredictable. By becoming a great observer of real people and an astute critic of great characters in literature, you’ll create characters who jump off the page—not just villains like Hitler or heroines like Pollyanna.

Mary DeMuth