Saturday, February 3, 2018

5 Things a Writer Can Dig Up in an Obituary

by Tim Suddeth @TimSuddeth

One morning, while I was in college, back in the day when phones hung on walls, I joined my father at the breakfast table for our daily ritual of reading the paper.

He looked over and gave me a smirk. “You’re still reading the comics?”

I looked at his section, the obituaries. I wanted to say, See your name? Instead, I said, “It’s better than being depressed from reading that.”

Oh, the folly of youth.

Now don’t misunderstand, I still read the funnies every day. I fully believe in the Reader’s Digest’s assertion, Laughter is the best medicine.

I love it when a cartoon makes me laugh out loud. Or when I share one with my wife and she hands it back saying, “That’s a good one.”

But I was dead wrong about obituaries. (All puns are fully intentional. I worked hard on them.) They are great sources of information for writers. And I found that obituaries aren’t only about death, they are also very much about life.

It had always bothered me that when I met someone, I only know them in that moment. I don’t get to see the many roles they currently have: mother, daughter, student, nurse, aunt, sister, teammate, writer, etc. This is especially true when you meet someone at a writer’s conference or workshop. It’s easy to ignore that they probably have another job, hobbies, or family demands. Sometimes I get so caught up in the conference, I think their address is the hotel.

When we moved into our house, our next-door neighbor, OB, was a lively ninety-two- year old gentleman. One day, I ran outside when I saw him in the branches of his cherry tree with only a handsaw. Over the years, I learned he had been an officer in the military, an engineer with Boeing, lived overseas, and helped Boeing build its first plant in Charleston. But to most people, he was only a little man in a ninety-something body.

An obituary summarizes a life in just a few paragraphs. Here, a writer can find a load of information.

1. Names
I met a writer who had written over 140 books. She said with that many stories, you are bound to reuse some names. Certain names conjure up a certain era, location, or even a group.

2. Backstory or experience
All of us are where we are because of what we’ve been through. In a story character, that’s backstory. And all of us are effected by what we’ve been through, for good or bad. And that is what brings depth to a character.

We may have a coworker whose desk is always in order. Maybe it’s because they were in the military, in prep school, or one time lost a report and they saw other coworkers laid off.

There’s an obituary of a lady with a list of several social groups that she’d joined. When you look at her family, she had no siblings and her parents served overseas as missionaries.

I read an obituary of a man who went to a one-room school house, became an artist, was drafted into the Army in Korea, and then got his MFA from Kansas City Art Institute.  His work is now being shown in museums and Embassies around the world.

3. Everyday life and interest
If you are writing historical, or maybe something for a particular group, an obituary may let you into the everyday life of the person. It may tell about their livelihood, social dynamics, or even diseases that might have been common to them.

One story told about the person going off to war. It was the first time they’d been away from home. College stories are also frequently seen.

I see in the paper a man who went to East Tennessee State, was an Army veteran, loved American history, NASCAR, and was a supporter of several Native American Indian Schools.

Does that combination of interests paint a portrait of a person your readers would be interested in?

4. Relationships
Often we read about parents, other family members, and others who were key parts in the person’s life. Teachers, mentors, even golfing buddies.

This reminds us writers of the importance in surrounding our main characters with well-rounded companions.

5. Their place in eternity
It is the rare obituary that doesn’t tell about the person’s faith and church affiliation. Some of them go even further and tells how the person influenced those around him.  At a time of death, the ‘What’s next’ question is impossible to ignore.

Is this a question that your character wrestles with?  According to your genre, you may not want to go into a lot of details. But it is a question that everyone faces.

And is there a more important one?

Obituaries shouldn’t be only gloomy. They show us the full life that a person lived, and the future reward they were promised and will enjoy. They remind us that a person is more than only whom we see.

To the writer, the more depth and nuance we add, the more memorable our characters becomes to our readers.

And isn’t that one of the goals for our writing?


Tim Suddeth has been published in Guideposts’ The Joy of Christmas and on He’s working on his third manuscript and looks forward to seeing his name on a cover. He is a member of ACFW and Cross n Pens. Tim’s lives in Greenville, SC with his wife, Vickie, and his happy 19-year-old autistic son, Madison.  Visit Tim at and on Facebook and Twitter. He can be also reached at


  1. Thank you, Tim.
    I may have to start looking at obituaries for character inspiration.

    1. They're windows into the lives of people who we may have passes on the highway or sidewalk. Thank you for reading.

  2. Thanks Tim. This post is excellent- not only for the information and writing inspiration it gives, but to try and see people in more ways than the one we meet in a conversation.

    1. Thank you. Most of us live very complex lives. That's something to remember as we tell our characters stories. And drink coffee with an acquaintance.

  3. Tim, I will never be stuck for character details again. Excellent article. You’ve made me think about things that have never occurred to me before. I’ll certainly never bypass the obit section again.

  4. Tim, Thank you for this great idea. I'll look at the obits in a different light now.

  5. Tim, when I read the title of your post, my first thought was, "Really?" I was curious to see where you would take us with this topic. What a great reminder that people are multi-faceted when we take time to notice. And we should take the time more often. People deserve it.