Thursday, 24 March 2016

Popeye, Frodo and Anne Shirley...and Khi? by Jo Wanmer

What do Popeye, Frodo and Anne Shirley have in common?
No this is not a trick question. I need help so today I have more questions than answers.

If I answer the first question, will you answer the next one? Popeye, Frodo and Anne Shirley are all distinctive, memorable characters, crafted by a creative pen. Whether a reader loves or hates them,
it doesn't matter. They have been quoted, talked about, emulated and taken by film-makers to make both investor and fan richer.

Of the three, my favourite is Anne of Green Gables. Nearly every character in those books and films are wonderfully individual. Anne's use of language, her responses,reactions and impulsiveness warm our hearts.

Let me ask you the main question. How do I create similar characters?  How do I write people we either love or hate, or at the very least stir our empathy? Characters we remember? My current problem is a supporting character. She chews over issues with Milly, encourages Milly, looks after Milly's kids. The book needs her. Milly needs her, but who is she? I determined one day to make her memorable so added to her character chart (you know the one - blue eyes, curly hair 157cm tall...) a big blue bra that acted like a handbag. She could pull anything out of it - from a hanky or dummy to a box of matches and bait for the fishing line. It was so memorable that I completed a full edit of 100,000 words without using that idea once. Her underwear never rated a mention.

Maybe blue bras don't make character? So who is she? Her name is Khi. My friends don't like her name. Originally she was Mia and then she became Shyhla. Neither of those worked. I like Khi but one of my readers thought it was a boy's name and was gender confused for ages. (Maybe she does need that big blue bra.) 

She is a mother, a great friend, wife of an highly successfully business man who abused her behind closed doors. (My readers would have to guess that because she is so embarrassed she doesn't want them to know. I hope she never reads this blog.) Her faith is determined as opposed to passionate. I could tell you about her broken childhood, her low self esteem, her fears and her capability.

But she is colourless, unmemorable. In a recent manuscript assessment Iola said, 'Khi needs further development. It's not that there is anything wrong with her character, but it would be good to know her better'. In other words she's not quite there. I agree. 

So I need help. Would a simple name change work? For instance I could call her Bl...y Mary, or BM for short to avoid offending my Christian readership. Would that add instant character? Or maybe I should....

As you see I'm out of ideas...or ideas that inspire me so that her character falls into the memorable category.

What do you like in characters? How do you build them?  Some writers develop characters sheets, others build an Instagram page, or write an interview of the character. What do you do? How do you get to know the people that carry your story?

I wait eagerly for your comments. Khi needs your help. She is the protagonist in  the sequel which is already written and I want her to have something in common with Popeye, Frodo and Anne. (Images from Wikipedia)

Jo Wanmer cheated when she wrote her first book. The fiction, Though the Bud be Bruised, is based on fact.  She knew all characters very well. It is her own story and she endeavoured to be very honest in every portrayal. As a result, all Zara's faults were on the page and few of her finer qualities. A beta reader who didn't know Jo personally was very critical of Zara and her husband, Sam. After Jo recovered from the shock, she realised her writing needed adjusting and did so.
Jo is very thankful for every person in the Christian writer community who has helped her over the years.
She loves feeling the air in her hair when driving with Steve in their new sports car, communicating the love of God with a pen or a microphone, and spoiling her eight grand-kids.


  1. Great blog Jo. I too love Anne Shirley - one of the most memorable characters in all fiction I've read from my childhood upwards. In Anne's case, it was her impulsive lovable nature, her interesting conversations and her active imagination that added a lot to her character I think. I think a name change might be a good idea for Khi - something with a bit more punch to it? Here's a character questionaire that might help you with Khi, Jo.

    Character Questionaire

    Reason or meaning of Name

    Nickname Reason for Nickname
    Birthdate Astrological sign

    Age How old does she appear?

    Eye colour Glasses or contacts

    Weight Height Type of Body build

    Skin Tone Skin type Shape of Face

    Distinguishing Marks

    Predominant feature

    Hair Colour Type (course/thin) Typical hairstyle

    Looks Like

    Is she healthy?

    Physical disabilities if any


    Daredevil or Cautious Same when alone?

    Character’s greatest fear? Why?

    What is the worst thing that could happen to him/her?

    What single event would throw character’s life into complete turmoil?

    Character is most at ease when

    Most ill at ease when


    Philosophy of Life

    How she feels about self?

    Past failure she would be embarrassed to have people know about

    If granted one wish what would it be?


    Is she doing what she most wants to do?

    If not what would she be rather doing?

    Where does character live?

    Where does she want to live?

    Does she have a significant other?

    What is the relationship like?


    Names, how many and what are their relationships with them like?

    What sort of car does he drive?

    What sort of house does he live in?

    What are the character’s finances like?

    Home Town

    What was early childhood like?

    First memory

    Most important early childhood event that still affects him/her



    Mother Relationship with her

    Father Relationship with him

    Siblings Birth Order

    Relationship with each sibling Children of siblings

    Extended family Close? Why? Why not?

    On the other hand, you might have done all of this already. All the best with Khi - I'm sure I will be enjoying reading of her life's journey one day and loving the experience. Keep on keeping on! :) You are doing a great job.

    1. Thanks Anusha. I have a few character questionnaires like that. It is there that the blue bra resides! However I need to get her clearer. I'm thinking about names.

    2. Very comprehensive! Thanks Anusha.

    3. You're most welcome Ruth. I thought others might find it useful which is why I posted. :)

  2. Khi sounds fascinating as you've described her here Jo. Why not find a way to tell your readers about her past and her big blue bra. If she's a supporting character, maybe you could remove her support for a while (I don't mean the bra!) and let the other characters discover more about her. I like the name, but it's unusual enough to need some explanation of how she came by it.

    1. Thanks Stella. She is removed for a while. I could use that better. Great thinking.

  3. Hi Jo,

    While I do pay attention to names, mannerisms and appearance, I think the thing that makes a character memorable for me is the emotional connection I have with them and the journey I encounter through their eyes. So rather than, "What's her name?" or "What's her favourite colour?" I'd be asking, "How does she grow?"

    Since she's a secondary character, I'd normally try to have her growth (or stubborn refusal to grow in a tragedy) reflect the protagonist in some way. For example, Han Solo's rogue to hero by accepting loyalty and responsibility paralleling Luke Skywalker's boy to man by embracing destiny and "the force".

    Or the secondary character's flaw can serve to force the protagonist to face their own demons. In Finding Nemo, Dory's ditziness plays constant havoc with Marlin's desire for order (which was born of tragedy). Nemo's suffocation under Marlin's over-protectiveness leads to a desire for independence, so by the end, both father and son have grown to a new place of trust and respect.

    It sounds like yours is a mentor character? For me, Good Will Hunting has one of the best "mentor with their own issues" characters. I wonder if the way to make Khi more memorable is to have her mentoring of your protagonist force her to face that abuse in her own life?

    Another way of asking the same question brings you back to theme. What's the big question you're trying to answer. Your secondary characters give you an opportunity to answer it from a different perspective.

    All the best as you work it through!

    1. Simon thanks for adding so much to my knowledge and this debate. How does she grow is a great question. As I read your words I thought I'd found the problem. She doesn't grow...but she does grow and overcome. I need to leverage the events to display her character better. Thanks. You're my hero.
      PS. I was forced by this blog to push back in writer world. I found an oasis there. Must get here every day again.

  4. Lovely honest, interesting read, Jo - thank you. Not sure I have any wonderful ideas for making Khi more 'memorable', but I do agree with the comment above that, if you stick with the name 'Khi', it would probably be good to explain how she came by it.

    You know, I think you have answered your own question in the paragraph in your blog describing Khi (She is a mother, great friend, wife' etc)--Perhaps making her a bit more vulnerable by exploring her embarrassment that you mention, her broken childhood, her fears would help. She wouldn't have to overtake the main character but you could hint at these things in a way that I'm sure would touch my heart anyway.

    1. Bless you Jo-Anne. You are always such an encourager. I answered a few of my own questions writing this blog yesterday. I'm thinking a new name or an interesting background to name. The tongue in cheek BM is interesting. a name with punch.... Hmm maybe someone will come up with it before the day is out.

  5. Hi Jo - great post and some great questions.

    It just so happens that I was doing a similar exercise on a secondary character as that is what we are looking at this week in Year of the Edit.

    Maybe the question isn't so much what makes Anne Shirley a great character - but what makes Dianne or Marilla or even Mrs Rachel Lynde memorable characters. I think one thing is that they are not serteotypes or one-dimensional - especially with Marilla and Mrs Lynde.

    Anyhow with YOE we were asked to look at what is the secondary's character motivation, what is his/her greatest fear, hopes and desires, what does s/he do when the main character is not around, how does s/he view the what's happening.

    And I think Simon is right that this somehow ties in with the main character's story and advances the plot.

    All the best with finding a name for Khi (is that pronouced Khai? as in Greek letter x) - maybe her eccentric father named all his children after a Greek letter Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon - though that would make it a rather large family ;)

    1. Though if she was Kappa, she could be number 10 :)

    2. What an interesting idea Jeanette. However I'm afraid that when her parents named her hey were more interested in what they could snort than what they could learn. But the concept has really got me thinking. Kappa has potential...I like it.
      You are right about Marilla. So many secondary characters are wonderful and memorable.

  6. Hi Jo
    Great post....not just because I am a big Popeye and Anne fan!

    I like the name Khi, a friend of ours is Ky - short for Kylie. Just a small spelling change but if you already have her in your head and heart as Khi changing to something else might not work at all.

    I also agree with Jo-Anne, just a little glimpse more into her background would give her a chance to show where her strength has come from.

    I am keen to read this book....

    1. Hi Di. Thanks for your comments. Ky is good. My brain is really working on this now! I'm keen for you to read the book too! Blessings.

  7. Hi Jo,
    It's such a long time since I read your MS, I still thought of Khi as Mia and took a moment to twig. Characters with original features and eccentricities are memorable, so that roomy blue bra might add to her character I'd think, along with suggestions people have made already about how she acquired her name.

    I totally agree with everyone that a crucial factor making characters memorable is their relatability (not sure that's a real word). Knowing them thoroughly as their author could be another key point. Daydreaming about our characters until we have all sorts of quirks that may never even make it to the page is great fun, and I like to think that it helps them come across as complex and real, even though the reader may only get a fraction of what we know about them.

    1. Wow, Paula. I'm impressed you remember at all. It was a few years ago. Sigh. I think I need to take Khi on a long walk on the beach and ask her lots of questions. Thanks for your support.

  8. Interesting ideas came from this post, thanks all!

    1. We do work well together don't we? Thanks Ruth

  9. Wow, thanks Jo for your amazing post and then everyone's comments! I have learnt to so much.
    A small change to Khi's name might be helpful but it's such an interesting name that I want to know where she is from? What about Kia? Or you might think about what you want her name to mean and go from there.
    Simon's question, How does she grow? is brilliant.
    What does Khi want and what is stopping her?
    From what you have said about Khi it sounds as if she is already a very rich character with depth, beauty and flaws. I guess the trick is showing that in your story in a way that adds fullness to the journey and conclusion.

    1. I have learned so much too Lindsay. Every little bit is making her richer. The trick is to show...not tell. Trusting it will come together.