Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Guest Author Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali: Four Ways to Take Your Character from Typical to Terrific

By  Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Finding ways to bring your characters to life are always in demand, and I'm happy to welcome Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali to the blog today to share four tips on how she adds life to otherwise normal characters.

Khaalidah was born in Rhode Island, the child of a U.S. Naval officer. She's been married to her husband for more than twenty years and has three amazingly intelligent and artistic children who outstrip her in every way possible. She works as an oncology nurse at a world renowned cancer center in Houston, Texas. Her greatest love, aspiration, and avocation is writing. She's a Muslim and she prays five times a day. She likes video games, anime/comics, reading, walking, Wii boxing, horror movies and zombies, and hanging out with her children. She sews and along with her husband, maintains a pretty spectacular organic garden in her backyard. Her first novel is An Unproductive Woman. You can find her at her website, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Goodreads, and Shelfari.

Take it away Khaalidah...

Do you people watch? I’d venture to say that if you’re a writer, you absolutely do. Do you ever wonder who people are deep down under their power suits or hospital scrubs or blue jeans? I’m not asking if you wonder how they look naked. I’m referring to the people they are beneath the veneer of normalcy.

Decidedly some of us appear more normal than others but who can really say what it means to be normal? Synonyms for normal include: regular, standard, ordinary, common, and dare I say, boring. No one wants to be boring, and neither should the characters we write and read about.

Most people are not what they appear because looks are deceptive, incomplete, and totally overrated. Human beings are dynamic and have incredible depth. They aren’t cardboard cutouts with gloss and color on one side and plain brown paper on the other. Neither should our characters be.

These are four ways to bring your characters to life, in full color, on both sides.

Odd/interesting professions, hobbies, training, or skill sets
Esmeralda is a mousy forty-three year old graying librarian living in a two bedroom flat with three cats and memories of her dead husband. She eats tuna casserole for dinner and knits until she falls asleep. Sheesh! Esme is boring, isn’t she? Make Esme terrific by making her the national parkour champion 1998-2002. Instead of knitting every evening before bed, she tucks her hair into a ball cap and meets the neighborhood kids at the park to teach them how to cat crawl and dash bomb. Cool.

Ethnicities, cultures, and languages
Do you remember the part where I mentioned “cardboard cutouts”? Good. Don’t forget it. We humans are similar in innumerable ways. We are unique in just as many ways. I balk at the wafer thin, suctioned and tucked, dyed and fried replicas that Hollywood and societal expectations have made of our actresses. Lack of cultural diversity is a definite way to ensure that I lose interest in a story. I know a lot of people who feel the same and this is because “cardboard cutouts” are so normal they’re, well, abnormal.

Nevin is a sixteen year old inner city African American male. He lives with his mother, grandmother, and three siblings. He attends high school in a pretty rough neighborhood and his grades are borderline, but his mother and grandmother are insistent that he get an education. His favorite music is rap and…I’ll stop here.

There’s already a ton of interesting potential conflict here, but Nevin is starting to sound like more than a few stories about American teens. Let’s make Nevin’s story less common by making him the son of Attila Soysal, the famous Turkish author who is rarely home due to his many speaking engagements abroad. Nevin can speak and write fluent Turkish and is presently penning his first, but extraordinary, epic fantasy novel in Turkish.

It could happen.

Strange secret or not so secret preferences or desires
There is nothing unique about enjoying a burger and fries, ice cream, blue jeans, a good book, lots of money, cold water on a hot day… These are ordinary desires and there’s nothing wrong with them, but why not surprise your reader?

Miriam Mahmoud is a seventy-six year old who immigrated to the states from Egypt in 1969. Miriam is the mother of five children and grandmother of twelve. She loves baking and gardening and as a result her kitchen table is always adorned with a plate of sticky honeyed baklava and a vase of hand cut yellow roses. Yep, that’s pretty standard grandma description there.

Do I hear you snoring? Hey, wake up!

Let’s make Miriam less standard double time. Miriam has trouble sleeping some nights. Once when she was awake at 2 a.m. she turned on the television in the hopes of catching some news about the political situation back home. Instead of CNN on channel 626, Miriam landed on channel 666 and was mesmerized by what she saw. Hellrasier. Pinhead freaked her out something fierce, but she liked it. She’s been watching horror movies every since. She hasn’t told her kids. They might think she’s abnormal.

Interesting and revealing tidbits from the past
What did you think of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker? Not bad, eh? Despite his awesome portrayal of the villain, one thing didn’t wash for me. I wanted to know what happened in the past to make The Joker such a sadistic freak. There was no answer, and that felt wrong. Little tidbits from the past make our characters understandable. We don’t need to be able to relate to our characters, or even like them, but we should understand where they’re coming from.

Angelina is a mature and responsible thirty-eight year old wife and mother of two. Her favorite foods are macaroni and cheese, French vanilla ice cream, and cottage cheese with peaches. See a trend here? Despite being an obvious dairyophile, Angelina despises milk. Her husband buys almond milk thinking that would be a healthy substitute, but Angie doesn’t care. She won’t drink it. When Angie’s husband asks why she says, “I know it’s not from an udder, but if the carton says milk and it looks white, I can’t bring myself to partake.” Weird, right? Her husband mentions Angie’s phobia one day while talking to her sister and learns the real reason. Angie hated milk as a kid but her mother, believing milk to be a necessary part of a growing child’s diet, made her drink a huge glass every morning. Bemoaning the cruelty, Angie would pout and whine for a good hour before realizing her mother wouldn’t give in. By then the milk was warm. Ick. Warm milk made her gag, every single time. Ah. Do you understand now?

I've only named four, but there are googoloplex ways to make a typical character terrific. Well, maybe not that many, but you get my point, right?

About An Unproductive Woman

After ten years of marriage, Asabe and Adam remain childless. Fueled by desperation and a long held secret, Adam marries a second wife. Fatima is very young and beautiful, but she has no affection for her new husband. She locks her bedroom door at night and avoids him at all costs. Despite the jealousy and bitterness that can often exist between co-wives, Asabe and Fatima become as close as sisters. Wanting the happiness of her new consort as well as her husband Asabe encourages Fatima to see the good in Adam. With time, Fatima learns to love her husband and becomes pregnant with twins.

As fate would have it, Adam's son is not destined for this world. He dies moments after his birth and Fatima follows closely behind him. Asabe promises Fatima to become a surrogate mother to the twin daughter who survives. On the very same day, Adam's business is destroyed by fire. Desperate to rebuild and to have a son, Adam makes a deal with a wealthy businessman named Abu Kareem. The deal? To marry Sauda, Abu Kareem's spoiled divorced daughter in exchange for the funds necessary to rebuild.

Read An Unproductive Woman to learn how Asabe finds the strength to live with the cunning, deceptive, and willful Sauda, and to learn what secrets Adam has withheld that would explain his unreasonable longing and pursuit of a son at all costs.


  1. Those are some fantastic ways to spice up the ordinary and make them extraordinary. It's not shunning the norms, but adding something unexpected to the mix.

  2. This is truly great advice. I think I'm going to have a lot of fun applying it. :)

  3. Oh, this is fun to play with!

    One series I'm working on, there's a pair of half-siblings, and the adult man has had to raise his baby sister, who's a good two decades younger. Guess which one of them likes classical music and which one of them goes for Hannah Montana?

    But even as your examples show, though, there has to be a reason the character stumbled into their odd interest(s).

  4. Great advice, and great examples! It's very clear that we can get stuck in boring ruts and stereotypes of character in our writing. And An Unproductive Woman sounds like an intriguing read!

  5. Outstanding post! I was wondering why my main character isn't exciting me these days. You've inspired me to go beyond the commonplace.

  6. I love your examples, and I hate stereotypes! If I find a Southern cop being stupid or with a drawl, I feel like barfing. If I find a romantic interest swooning, ick. If I find a grandmother with grey hair and knitting, I want to...

    I'm a grandmother, and I have brown hair, a black leather jacket, drive a Mustang GT, and make forts with sheets.

    I love to observe humans in their natural habitat. They are so much more interesting if you can give them imaginative backgrounds!

    Wonderful post - sharing to FB!

  7. Great advice about character! And An Unproductive Woman sounds so good I just bought it for my Kindle! :)

  8. I'm so glad you all enjoyed my examples. They were as fun for me to write as they were for you all to read.
    I agree that stereotypes are the worst disease we can give our characters. Normal is okay but don't we all have that off beat characteristic? I think our characters do/should too.
    Thanks for reading everyone!

  9. I don't like stereotypes either. And I've noticed that I can tell a lot about the author by the characters; their fears, their speech is the same. I'm going the opposite with one of mine. At a glance, he's a nice-looking White male of about 30, has blond hair, blue eyes, etc. He can easily blend into a crowd or be mistaken for someone else.
    But current friends know him as Jack Smith. The 33 year old is friendly & outgoing but quiet. When questioned about his past, his family or his friends, his answers are consistently basic & vague (How many kids do you have? Too many.)
    And those few he trusts, know that his full name is Quintyn Jack Smith II. He is happily married to the darkest of Black beauties. He made a series of mistakes as a teen that landed him in jail. He stutters & is fidgety. There are other secrets & when questioned about any of them, he stutters worse or goes mute. In other words, what you see is not what you get.
    But it's a fun challenge to write from a different POV. An old man or an unwed teen girl. A lady from Puerto Rico that speaks "Spanglish", a cowboy or a cop. None of which I am. When I ever get my book published, I hope no one would ever guess that I'm none of those.

  10. I forgot to add that many authors make it seem like unless they specify what nationality a character is, assume he/she is White. They'll mention hair & eye color to tell them apart & not much else.