23 and Me: Classifying Fictional Characters

While I’m taking time off this summer, I’m also working on my next novel for Mira Books.

CharactersYou might not know I’m working if you watch me. Days pass without my opening my computer. But inside my head, I’m slowly working through what I know and don’t know about the four major characters who will soon begin their lives on paper.

Should Characters Be Classified?

For me, knowing my characters well before we begin our journey together is essential. While other writers like to be surprised at every turn, before I begin I want to know my “folks” so intimately that if you asked me what she eats for breakfast, or whether he prefers sunset to sunrise, I have an answer, even if I’ve never before considered the question. I want to know my people so thoroughly that I’m able to answer immediately and be completely secure I’m right.

Then I can begin.

In real life, people are rarely heroes or villains. We have a bit of each inside us. Characters should be the same, and yet characters are classified and slotted into all kinds of simpler groups in our novels. They’re blonds or brunettes, smart or clueless, friends or foes. Secondary characters, the ones who flesh out the story but aren’t the main focus, are often stereotypes. The surly cab driver. The chatty waitress. We don’t need to know more about them than the barest description. Sometimes we aren’t even treated to that.

Outside novels each of us fits into many groups.

  • I’m a mother
  • A wife
  • A novelist
  • A quilter
  • A reader

And inside these groups there are more divisions.

  • The mother of four
  • A minister’s wife.
  • An average quilter
  • A voracious reader

I’m sure you’re the same. I could continue breaking down each group, over and over.

My 23 and Me Surprise.

Always, though, no matter what groups we’re included in, there are surprises. My own personal surprise came this week when 23 and Me emailed a report on my ancestry based on a test (okay, I spit in a test tube over and over and over. . .) that I performed at home. 23 and Me, along with others like Ancestry.com, analyzes DNA and compares it with large samples of DNA worldwide. From this they can, with fair accuracy, tell you the areas from where your ancestors hailed.

Ethnicity is one of those classifications each of us considers when we meet someone new. Sometimes a person’s ancestry seems clear. Other times, it’s a guessing game. We make assumptions based on facial features or surnames. We are often wrong. These days–and perhaps from the beginning of humanity–our ethnicity becomes cause for some people to dislike or even hate us. That’s a shame.

I had a good idea what my results would say, even while I hoped for something I didn’t know. For me a surprise would have meant something other than European. African, Middle Eastern, Asian. Native American? I would have welcomed each new opening into our international community.

Instead, as expected, I learned that I’m 100% European, although from more areas than I’d known about. I’m a bit Scandinavian, and there’s Iberian Peninsula and Sardinian mixed in, along with the UK, Irish, French and German I expected. That was fun and new. According to 23 and Me, those bloodlines were from a long time ago, but hey, I’ll take whatever diverse fruit my family tree will produce.

More surprising? What else did I find? The biggest and best surprise? I have more. . . Neanderthal blood, than 79% of others who have been tested.

Of course, now Proman has a comeback whenever I spill soup on my clothes or turn left when he’s told me to turn right. But did you know that many Europeans have Neanderthal blood? I have some catch-up reading to do. (And yes, I did learn to read.)

Will I Create Ancestry Charts for My Characters?

As thorough as my character sketches are when I begin writing, I won’t be creating ancestry charts for each of them. Or at least not as elaborate as the one I now have for myself.

But my experience with 23 and Me does have me thinking. Much of who I am is because of my parents and their parents. I still use French phrases my mother uttered in my childhood, although I don’t speak French. I learned to love sauerkraut at home along with corned beef and cabbage. I learned to be proud of my father’s ancestors who signed the Declaration of Independence and the great-great-grandfather who was a general in the Civil War.

Did these things make me the woman I am? Not completely, of course, but they contributed. In the same way, I’ll probably think a bit more carefully about the families from which my characters are descended. What holidays did they celebrate at home? How did their parents divide the labor of raising children? How large a part did their grandparents play in their upbringing? What family stories were they told at bedtime? What religion did they practice and who made certain they did?

Creating characters is my favorite part of writing. More attention to ancestry will be an added pleasure.

Do you know where your family came from? Have you considered how it makes you the person you are? Let us know.


  1. Shanna on August 9, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    What signer of the Declaration of Independence are you related to? My husband is related to John Hart. I just think it’s so cool!!!

    • Emilie Richards on August 9, 2017 at 8:02 pm

      George Ross and George Read. I just learned that Read was on the committee that wrote the Constitution, too.

  2. Nancy Lepri on August 9, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    This is so interesting, but I’m too lazy to do all this work! I’d much rather read!

  3. Penny A L Prichard on August 9, 2017 at 10:31 pm

    I have spent the past 10 days on a reunion tour. Each day I’ve seen someone that I haven’t seen in 3, 5, 8 or 22 years. I reconnected with a high school buddy that I haven’t seen since 1968! It was grand reminiscing and catching up. I’ve spent the last two days with cousins I haven’t seen in 22 years. I know them and they know me. Talking about our grandparents, seeing things in their homes that came from my grandparents home has been wonderful. We remember exactly where things were in Grandma’s house. Sharing stories. Haven’t done the DNA thing but I know I come from some pretty amazing folks.

  4. Rosemary Geisler on August 10, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    I did Ancestry. Com and I wasn’t surprised to find out that I am 97% Irish. My 4 grandparents came to the U S from Ireland. But I did meet a first cousin that we didn’t know we had. We are a BIG Irish family. I have 44 first cousins and many, many second cousins.

  5. Bess on May 23, 2018 at 9:28 pm

    As I have emailed you before “Whiskey Island” is my favorite book. I’m reading “The Parting Glass” and yes my Ancestry DNA is mostly Irish with some German in there but 100% European, my Dad always said his Grandmother was Native American but my DNA says No. I was wondering if you knew anything about autism first hand. You have written about it in “The Parting Glass” with so much knowledge I feel you have had first hand experience. My grandson is an adult now but the way you write about Kieran is so real, I think you were looking in our window. Looking forward to your next book.

    • Emilie Richards on May 25, 2018 at 4:21 pm

      A very long time ago I did therapy with two autistic children under the close guidance of a child psychiatrist. So I did have a little hands-on experience, and I also did a lot of reading. Thank you for telling me it all seemed real to you, Bess.

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