Mapping Your Way to Complex Characters

By Cerissa DiValentino

The disorienting feeling you experience after finishing a novel wherein the characters feel like someone you know in real life demonstrates the power complex characters have over our emotions. As writers, we aim to immerse our readers so completely into the world we’ve created that they’re hesitant to leave it. Most importantly, we want our readers to feel an emotional bond to our characters because it means we did our job right. Written effectively, complex characters have the ability to sustain narrative urgency and continue to impress upon the reader long after they’ve finished the book.

To that end, the best plots are character-driven, and it’s through the tension between a character’s desires and their internal and external obstacles that the reader latches onto the story, aiming to figure out how this character is going to obtain what they so badly want. The reader loves to root for the underdog rather than the perfect cheerleader who has won Prom Queen three years in a row. Readers empathize with flawed characters living outside the limelight in hopes that eventually, through struggle, they’ll achieve their desires and shine.

As a helpful tool in crafting complex characters, I suggest character mapping. Start by looking at your central character and asking the question: what is it that my character really wants? After you have come up with an answer, ask yourself: what are the obstacles in my character’s path (both internal and external). Next: what are some ways my character can achieve their desires despite these obstacles? Once you have an outline of what your character desires, what obstacles they face and how they are going to persevere, you already have a plot in the making and you’re ready to start writing.

For example, in Courtney Maum’s Costalegre, the novel follows Lara, a fifteen-year-old girl who is constantly neglected by her mother, but deeply desires to be cherished by her. Lara is a developing artist living on the island of Costalegre with a group of outcast artists her mother has rescued from Europe at the start of Hitler’s regime. Throughout the novel, it’s obvious to the reader that Lara wants her mother to appreciate her artwork as she does the work of the artists she has rescued. Lara’s perseverance to become a skilled artist, thinking that her mother might pay her more attention if she is more talented, breaks my heart and makes me feel closer to her. As the reader, I am instantly drawn to Lara’s inner conflict and feel her desire for motherly love as if it is my own. As the character who is dismissed by others throughout the novel, she becomes the reader’s entire focus because we wish for her to achieve her desires as much as she does.

People are constantly searching for something that will make them feel more alive, more aware, or in other words, simply more human. We fall in love with characters that emulate all human behavior, including flaws. Characters that desire more than what they have and go against the general grain of society to achieve it, make us root for them. When Lara takes off on a horse despite the oncoming storm because she wants to prove to the adult artists that she has her own agency, we are rooting for her with our fists high in the air. If your characters are as multifaceted as you are human, the reader will find those characters more enticing than any typical, popular cheerleader.

Writing 101 for Struggling College Students

By Savannah Lopez

Have you ever compared yourself to your peers and felt discouraged?  Do you sometimes find it hard to stay inspired? It’s okay, we’ve all been there.

I’ve been in college for almost six years and it wasn’t until 2017 when I realized I wanted to become a creative writing major.  I transferred to Purchase College in 2018 and commuting back and forth makes me feel behind. There’s times my peers would want to host a workshop outside of class and I can’t attend because I live over an hour away.  Or, me not being able to meet with the Writers Club because they meet late during the week. These are opportunities to improve my writing, and I have to miss out.

There are also times I read my peers work and think, damn this is so poetic, how can I compete with this?  I would also sit in class listening to discussions about authors like Jane Austen and Toni Morrison (at the time I had no clue who these legends were) and I would awkwardly smile and shake my head up and down like Wow I’m so lost.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed or discouraged it can be hard to get that confidence and inspiration back, but not impossible.  Here are some tips on how to fix that:

  • Never compare.  We’re human, so we’re bound to have thoughts of not being as good as someone else but it’s crucial to remember that in five years, that person will be long gone, doing his or her own thing.  Realizing this has helped me gained confidence in my writing. Your dedication and performance determines how far you go in life, not your peers. How far will you push yourself to succeed? I’ve had to ask myself, Savannah are you going to watch another episode of Friends or start brainstorming ideas for your short story?  As a result, I’ve saved myself a lot of stress by starting my work early and getting it out of the way.  If you leave it for the last minute, the pressure of getting your work done will increase the chances of mistakes and submitting poor work.
  •  Keep a planner handy and start using sticky notes.  Having your life together will make you feel in control. Use a planner to jot down ideas, to-do lists, and assignments. I place sticky notes around my room to give myself reminders about a meeting I have or even something positive like, “You are worthy and resilient.” I also plan my week out in my planner so I know exactly what I have to do each day.  Writing is not something that can be rushed. Try writing a page a day and always carry around a small book for new ideas. It’ll help you not feel so overwhelmed.
  • What motivates you?  An easy way to stay inspired is to do things you enjoy.  If long nature walks or car rides inspire you to write beautiful scenery details, then go more often.  I first started writing in high school because it helped be cope during dark times. I even gave myself closure sometimes.  I think if you’re ever feeling angry or hurt, you should immediately write those feelings in your notes on your phone or a notebook.  These raw, powerful feelings can end up turning into an amazing poem or short story. 
  • Remember self-care.  Your wellness is important. If you’re feeling too overwhelmed with life, take a personal day. Put on a face mask and unwind to some Alicia Keys.  I love to buy my favorite cookies, snuggle with my pets, and binge watch The Walking Dead.  It’s okay to skip class occasionally, but make sure to stay on top of what you have to do so you can avoid falling behind.

Nothing is too big for you to overcome.  You must believe in how awesome you are and, in your ability, to make your goals happen.  You’ve come this far, keep going!

Writing as Medicine

By Ingrid Kildiss

Its 3:30 pm, I’m sitting in class and my mind is racing. There are at least two more hours until my professor lets us out of class, but I can’t sit still. I’m anxious about the argument I got into with my mom this weekend, all the work I need to do, and the mess I left in my apartment, but I’m determined not to leave class. I open up a blank page in my notebook and write. While it’s not easy to write about the things that make me anxious and uncomfortable, it is much much better than remaining in an anxious mindset for the rest of class and risking spiraling into a terrible mood or leaving in the middle of a lecture.

Journaling and creative writing can be helpful in dealing with the potential trauma, stress, and anxiety of school and everyday life. In 1997, the American Psychological Society along with James Pennebaker published a study titled “Writing About Emotional Experiences As A Therapeutic Process,”  in which they argue that individuals who wrote about emotional or traumatic experiences for as little as fifteen to thirty minutes a day for three to five days experienced significant mental health improvements. Self-reports from subjects of this study identify the mental health improvements as being a reduction of stress as well as a reduction of depressed feelings. Many subjects (who were also students) noted an increase in grades in their self-reports. It’s likely that by writing, these young people confront and process tough emotions instead of ignoring them.

So, if you’re ever having a day where you just can’t shake off that anxious feeling, or you feel a bad thought escaping from where you left it last, consider sitting down for fifteen minutes to write. If starting is something you have trouble with, there are plenty of online resources and prompts. My favorite way to start is just to write stream of consciousness. This way, I often find my way to the issues that linger in my subconscious and address them by putting them to paper. Afterward, I tend to feel soothed or lighter. Even that small act can make a huge difference in your life and mental health. And if you’re committed to writing every day, you can find the path to conceits for stories or just to develop a practice of self-care!

SUNY Purchase’s “Italics Mine” Literature Magazine Unveils Their 16th Issue

Italics Mine releases their 16th issue of literary work by the SUNY Purchase community.

Purchase, NY – 1 May, 2019 – On May 1, 2019, at 4:30 in the Buffer Room of the Admissions Building, Italics Mine will release the 16th installment of their student run literary magazine. Comprised of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art, interviews and book reviews, issue 16 features the work of 45 SUNY Purchase contributors, including work by Winnie Richards, Liv Rouse, and Gio Martin. Contributors will read from their work and copies of the issue and branded merchandise will be available for sale. A light reception will follow the readings.

When asked about the launch of issue 16,Trisha Murphy, a student editor on both the events & poetry boards says, “Italics Mine has been an experience unlike any other. Working one on one with contributors has been so exciting, and provided me with experience I would not have gained elsewhere.” Christina Baulch, a literature major, says of the editing process, “As an editor, I really enjoyed getting to connect with the variety of talent on our campus. Our contributors come from across the disciplines, so it was a joy getting to know them through our correspondence.”

Issue 16 is a culmination of two semesters worth of student collaborative editing as part of a two-sequence course entitled Editing & Production, taught by Creative Writing Assistant Professor Mehdi Okasi. The journal opened for submissions in fall of 2018 and the student editorial boards have been diligently reviewing and evaluating submissions over the course of two semesters on a rolling basis. The May 1st launch party celebrates the hard work of the editorial staff by providing a platform for new student creative work. More information about the magazine can be found online at

Italics Mine showcases the new, creative literary voices of Purchase College students—majors and non-majors alike—through print and web. The diversity of the student population is reflected in the pieces we strive to share with the entire college community. Italics Mine aims to further student writers and help them grow with assistance from their editors.

Mitchell Angelo, Poetry and Art Editor

Writing People We Know

By Elana Marcus

In the 2015 Noah Baumbach film, Mistress America, college freshman Tracy meets her stepsister, Brooke, for the first time. Inspired by Brooke’s eccentric personality, Tracy writes a short story about her to submit to the school literary journal. After Brooke discovers the story, she is enraged. A whole interrogation scene follows where essentially every character in the movie yells at Tracy for what she’s done. Tracy breaks down in tears. Brooke threatens to sue. After watching this film, I found myself thinking deeply about this issue of writing people we know and the risks we take in doing so.

Anyone who writes fiction has probably found herself in Tracy’s position at some point. There have been many times where I’ve met someone and thought about fictionalizing them. But then the questions arise: is it okay for me to do this? Would it be considered stealing if I write about this person without permission? Will the person be mad at me if they find out that I’ve written about them? Is this immoral? It’s not like we can just walk around town with a disclaimer taped to our foreheads that reads: anything you say or do in my vicinity may be used in a story.

I think it’s safe to say that most (if not all) writers draw inspiration from their lives. It would be nearly impossible to create every single element of a story solely from the imagination, and a story should have some element of emotional truth. It isn’t so much a question of whether it’s okay to write about actual people, but when it is acceptable .

This past February, I was part of a small group of students who met at Purchase with novelist Elif Batuman, whose 2017 novel The Idiot sees the author drawing heavily from her own personal experiences in college. At the meeting, I asked her about the experience of writing characters based on people she knew. She answered that she started writing these characters long after she knew them, and she felt that waiting to write them was helpful. I’ve received similar advice from former teachers, who have said that waiting a while to write about people you know can better help you write them as characters and better analyze the circumstances under which you knew them.

Writing about people who are currently a part of our lives can certainly be a challenge. It could be easy for a writer to hold back when writing these characters because they don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings or risk potential conflict. But the details that are being held back may be the most compelling traits of this character. I once made a short film that was inspired by a friend of mine who had a habit of being late and unreliable, and a mutual friend approached me about it, saying that it might hurt her feelings. My friend ended up being completely okay with it, but it did force me to think more about whether the projects I work on could hurt the people I care about. In certain cases, waiting to write about someone could be beneficial. If you end up losing contact with this person or don’t see them as often, you most likely won’t have to worry about causing conflict and can feel less restrained in how you portray this character. Writing people we know may also feel uncomfortable, much like running into someone you dreamt about the night before. It can feel awkward, and this could also cause you to hold back when writing the character. I have written stories inspired by people I knew in my past and people I am close to now, and thankfully it’s worked out well for me in both cases. But I have also felt uncomfortable doing so and had trouble seeing the person as a fictional character.

Here’s my advice: if you’re inspired by a person and you want to write them as a character, give it a shot. See what works best for you. If writing about a person you know is working well for you, go with it! If you’re finding it difficult, let some time pass and try again in the future. You’ll have a different perspective on this person by that point and that could make the process of writing them clearer. Also, change enough about them so that the character on the page becomes distinct. I once heard that if you’re writing real-life people as characters, change at least one detail about the person’s physical appearance. This will allow you to see this person as the character you have created, rather than just a total imitation of the person who inspired you. Seek to use this person to create rather than imitate; they are just a jumping off point for the character you are creating.

The Sliding Razor: Effects of Sensory Imagery in Writing

By Shannon Magrane

Sensory imagery, by definition, is an element of writing in which the five senses (sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell) are described in order to make your readers feel what your characters are experiencing. By evoking a sensory reaction, the writer enables the reader to be part of the characters’ physical experience. It has long been said that bad characters cannot carry a good plot, but good characters can carry a bad plot, so it is essential that the reader be connected to the characters above all. As such, the writer must make it as easy as possible for the reader to empathize with them. If the writer successfully achieves that, then they tie the reader’s emotions to those of the characters, and invest their audience completely in their story from beginning to end.

I understood this concept only on a basic level when I first started writing fiction seriously, much the same way you understand a recipe from reading and memorizing it, but not actually seeing or cooking the dish. It did not fully hit me how effective it could be in practice until reading “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” a 1967 short story by Harlan Ellison. In Ellison’s tale of a nightmarish future, one of only five humans left alive on Earth tells the story of how they spend the rest of their lives imprisoned, immortal, and tortured by the supercomputer that ended the world in the first place. This computer’s name is AM. He can think. He can reason. And he can feel…but the only thing left for him to think and reason and feel is how much he hates humanity.

This was the story that fully opened my eyes to the true potential of sensory imagery to reach inside the reader and fill them to the brim with emotion. Note your reaction to lines like, “AM said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball,” or, “The pain shivered through my flesh like tinfoil on a tooth.” The latter set my teeth on edge and made me taste metal. I was horrified, I was afraid, I was in the shadow of pain, but at the same time, I was amazed, fascinated, downright inspired.

Ellison’s use of language and intimate sensory imagery made me feel as though I were experiencing every pain the characters endured, an experience that no other writer had managed to evoke until that point. I sought to explore more of this skill, of how to make the words flow so fluidly and so vividly, digging deep as I could into the depths of what a person can feel. Such brilliant details can make another world or an alternate reality entirely tangible to the reader, no matter how wild or unfamiliar it is. It is these evocative details that a reader can recognize through the sensations of their own body, thereby becoming fully immersed in the people and in the world that the author has created. For an author who wants to create this re-familarizing effect in his or her audience, such details are essential to include.

Sensory imagery, of course, can and should be used to conjure other emotions besides fear. Though it feels like common knowledge, all five senses must be considered to get the full range of the sensation you are trying to convey. Think: do you have a headache, or is a jackhammer relentlessly pounding at the crevices of your brain? Are you happy, or did a fierce electric current just shoot through your veins? Are you disgusted by something, or does your skin crawl as though you’ve been dunked headfirst into cold bile? Which set of words makes your body react as you read? Which can you connect more to? And, quite simply, which sounds more interesting?

A writer should look into their own memories, their own experiences, to project onto their characters and narration. But when you do, focus less on the emotion that is being felt and focus more on what is going through the body as it is happening: over the skin, piercing the eardrum, holding the organs and muscles inside. All the little details of what you feel are valuable, and can deeply enrich a story. Above all, as a writer, you must show, not tell, and use of sensory imagery is an incredibly effective way to do that.

Image: SugaryAshes. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Drawing. DeviantArt.