Finding the Right Parents for Your Character (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

How do you decide what kind of parents your main character will have? I suppose this question brings us back to the ever-present issue of whether you start with an outline or fly by the seat of your pants when writing. Maybe you begin with character sketches. Personally, I try to feel my way into the character's skin. Once I'm in there, I look around through her eyes.

What's the first thing she feels when she thinks about mom or dad? Is it a sense of oppressiveness, disappointment, angst, joy, relief, gratitude, or even fury? Most  relationships have their positives and negatives, but what is the first sensation the character feels when thinking of that parent? And then, what makes her feel that way? Is it a longstanding feeling or something going on between them right now?

With BREATHING, I knew right away that Savannah's father had been out of the picture a long time and that her mother held an important place in her life. Slipping into her skin, I knew Savannah felt her mother had too many rules, but that she also appreciated how hard her mother worked to provide for her and her brother. It wasn't until much later in the process that I thought to slip into her mother's skin, to see what her upbringing had been like, and how that had affected her own parenting.

My current work-in-progress includes three generations. And it fascinated me to look at the mother-daughter relationships, to think about how each daughter had been brought up and how that affected the next generation. And then also to examine how the fathers came into play, what roles they held, and how their daughters felt toward them.

Thinking this through for my characters made me think quite a bit about how affected humans/characters are by their parents, how this plays out across generations, and that even if the parents themselves do not play a key role in the story we are telling, we should make evident how they impacted their children. Because whether a character's parents are too strict or overindulgent or even absent altogether, parents affect our characters. And we make our stories ever richer when we take the time to understand those relationships.


  1. Wow--this is almost like treating a character's parents as backstory, isn't it? (That actually makes me think of parents in a completely new way!)

  2. Ha! I love that cartoon!!! So spot on. Great post!!!

  3. Great post. I like your perspective and the way you think.


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