Crafting Compelling Characters through Their Heritages and Activities

Today I’d like to welcome Staci Troilo as my guest. Staci is a friend and fellow author. She’s going to talk about her experience with writing, tell a bit about her latest book, and share one of her award winning recipes. Please welcome Staci!

Hi, Joan. It’s an honor for me to be here today. Thanks for inviting me. And to your readers, hello! I’m glad to be here and appreciate the chance to chat with you for a bit.

I’m not sure what your experience is with writing stories. I’ve been writing fiction for more years than I care to admit. One of the things I learned in my college classes was that regardless of the genre, regardless of the plot, the characters drive the action.

Cliché characters are boring. Even with a stellar plot, if the characters aren’t fresh and exciting, the story will be flat. (Agree? Click to Tweet it.)

When I began writing my latest release, Bleeding Heart, I brought a lot of my heritage to the story. The leading lady is an Italian American (as am I) and she lives in Western Pennsylvania (which is where I was born and raised). Her love interest? Also of Italian descent. I could have written her just like me and him just like my husband, but Corey and I are pretty normal. Reading about normal characters doing the expected is a bit dull.

So, in addition to an action-packed plot, I made Francesca hopeless in the kitchen. I’m an award-winning recipe developer. I love to cook and bake. I’ve been in the kitchen since I could walk, learning to prepare meals and desserts with my mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and cousins. Francesca is not like me. She resists kitchen work. The beginning of the novel shows her with an injury—from a strawberry and a toaster. Hopeless. (If you want to know how that happened, you can download the deleted scene where the injury occurs by clicking here.)

But food is an important part of the Italian American culture. I wanted to pay homage to that tradition in the novel. How would I do that when my heroine loathed cooking?

I made my hero love it.

Gianni is more than competent in the kitchen. Cooking is cathartic for him. It reminds him of happy childhood memories and lets him show his love for the people he cares about by feeding them. His culinary interests gave me a way to not only showcase my heritage, but to craft unique characters and develop them beyond a single dimension.

I don’t mean to imply that I made my hero a kitchen dynamo because men can’t cook. I know men can. In addition to all the wonderful male chefs out there, I have firsthand experience—my husband is actually a fabulous cook. (You should try his linguini with clam sauce… heavenly.) But we’ve all heard the saying: a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. We’ve seen women cook for men countless times. I turned that trope upside-down. One of the ways my hero won his girl was by cooking for her.

The point is this—don’t fall into stereotypes when crafting your stories. As writers, you owe it to your readers to make your characters compelling. And as readers, don’t accept the damsel in distress and the knight on a white horse. Look for stories that challenge traditional tropes. (Maybe the damsel is a soldier and the knight is a nerdy college professor. That’s pretty unique.)

I promised Joan I’d talk about food. It’s a huge part of my heritage, and it’s a pretty big part of my novel. So, in closing, I thought I’d leave you with the recipe I won first prize for—stuffed eggplant (melanzane ripiene). Not only is it a traditional Italian dish, it’s low-carb (which is something my characters are concerned about) and delicious. At home, I serve it with a tossed salad, but it also pairs well with pasta and/or garlic bread.

(*Note: If anyone in your family is like my kids and refuses to eat eggplant, you can substitute zucchini [which my son also won’t eat, but my daughter loves] or make the meat/sauce/cheese mixture and put it on open-faced buns before broiling.)


stuffed eggplant

Stuffed Eggplant


1½ pounds large, firm eggplant (1 large or 2 small)

2 Tbsp olive oil, divided

1 pound ground turkey

1 15-oz can tomato sauce

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp dried parsley

1 tsp dried basil

½ tsp dried oregano

¼ tsp salt

¼ tsp ground black pepper

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, divided



  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with foil. Set aside.
  2. Wash eggplants, trim off stems, and cut in half length-wise. Drizzle with half the oil and rub it all over. Place cut-side up on prepared sheet pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes (flesh should be soft when removing from oven).
  3. While eggplant is roasting, heat remaining oil in large skillet over medium flame. Add ground turkey, garlic, and seasonings. Sauté until meat is brown. Add sauce and warm through. Remove from heat. Add half the cheese and stir to combine.
  4. When eggplant comes out of oven, scoop the flesh out of the skin (taking care not to damage the shell). Chop and add to meat mixture. Combine well.
  5. Set oven to broil. Fill eggplant boats with meat mixture. Top with remaining cheese. Place under broiler until cheese melts and meat looks crispy (about 4-5 minutes). Serve immediately.

Staci Troilo writes multi-genre fiction focusing on flawed relationships. Her series and standalone Staci pose 1titles span the mystery, contemporary, and romance genres and many of their sub-genres, including suspense, paranormal, and medical dramas. Her short fiction has won many regional awards. Find her at

Bleeding Heart—Franki, secret legacy of the Medici, is prophesied to return Italy to its former glory. Targeted for assassination and ignorant of her enemy’s identity, she is protected by Gianni, the warrior destined to defend her. He must conquer her fears and his demons to save them both. Available now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iBooks.

Connect with Staci:


22 thoughts on “Crafting Compelling Characters through Their Heritages and Activities

    1. Thanks, Kath. My grandmother has a trophy labeling her “World’s Best Cook.” I know now that it was a silly gift from someone, but growing up, I believed she won a contest and was the world’s best cook. I always wanted to win a similar contest, not that a world cooking contest even exists. When I saw the contest, I decided to submit this recipe. Then I forgot all about it. You can’t imagine my surprise when they notified me that I won. I didn’t get a trophy for my recipe, although first place and $1000 was pretty cool, but I feel I finally paid homage to my grandma’s talent. And because this story pays homage to my grandfather’s heritage, I think I’ve honored them both pretty well.


  1. Buongiorno Stacey,

    No, di pomodori pilati. Ti perdono. Gli americani non possono cucinare e mangiare cibo spazzatura. 😉
    What happened to red, juicy, glowing with health, home grown tomatoes. Tinned tomatoes taste like metal. My husband hate cooked tomatoes – but in Italy he loves it because it’s made fresh with some basil, garlic and olive oil.
    I try your recipe, but with fresh tomatoes and fresh herbs. The Sicilians don’t do turkey – I try with salsiccia.

    Proud of you! I love reading books with recipes in them. I still bake a sponge cake from a recipe I wrote down in a book I read when I was still in school. And make yoghurt from a recipe I found in a book too.

    You are my kind of writer.

    Ciao ciao,

    Porto Turistico Marina di Ragusa, Sicily.


    1. I actually have a recipe for real homemade sauce, but no one in America will take the time. (You’re right, though; it’s unbeatable.)

      I’ve never made yogurt yet, but I’ve been considering it. I also want to make homemade ricotta and mozzarella. My family has made sausage and soprasatta for decades, so I think it’s time to try cheese.

      I use turkey because it’s leaner than beef and has more protein, but I think it would be fabulous with ground lamb. I don’t bother, though, because I’m the only person in my family who eats lamb.

      If you make the recipe with your changes, do let me know how you like it.



  2. You are so right about compelling characters driving a novel. Francesca and Gianni sound like a good match. As someone who is half Italian and grew up surrounded by Italian traditions, I can so relate to how important it is to the family culture. I, however, must have been scribbling a story in a tablet when they handed out the cooking gene, because it’s only lately that I’ve become semi-competent in the kitchen. Your eggplant recipe sounds delicious and I’m going to give it a try! Thanks for the lovely post, Staci!


    1. Family is foremost for Italians. I know you get that.

      This recipe is easy as… well, I’d say “pie” but crusts can be tricky. Seriously, you can’t mess this recipe up, unless you burn something, which I doubt you will. If you try it, do let me know what you think.


  3. What an interesting twist you have for your characters. I love it, I can’t wait to read how Gianni cooks and woos Francesca. And thanks for sharing your recipe. My husband is not an eggplant fan, but he loves zucchini, And with the zucchini in abundance from the garden, a great way to use it. As for me, I will make my section without cheese. Yes, I am the only Italian on the planet that doesn’t eat cheese.


    1. You are the only Italian I know who doesn’t like cheese. I’d miss it in the recipe, but I’m sure you’ll like it. How can you go wrong with meat and sauce, right?


      1. Indeed. But am a bit quirky and have several off the wall eating habits. I frequently tweak recipes to fit my eating style, and that of my family.


        1. But I love pancakes. And I make and excellent biscuits and sausage gravy. 🙂 You can both eat my eggs and cheese, I will not mind.


  4. Oh my word – that recipe sounds heavenly! I also love the look into the characters (and deleted scene.) I love how the two are paired so that there is a little something that can either cause tension or be a compliment – one filling in where the other is lacking. Great insight, Staci and Joan!


    1. Thanks, Stephanie. That recipe is one of my favorites, not because it won, but because I love eggplant. If you try it, let me know what you think.

      And, as for the characters, thanks. That’s high praise coming from a talented writer such as you.


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