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And it’s time for part 3 of our SCBWI conference series – Let Your Characters Tell You Who They Are! If you missed out, don’t forget to swing by part 1 and part 2. Or not. I won’t judge either way. 😉

This workshop was conducted by Andrew Harwell, an editor with HarperCollins, and he started us off with a few of the common phrases editors use when they’re describing great characters. “This character feels three-dimensional.” “This character walks off the page.” “This character feels authentic.” …you get the idea. The point of this whole workshop was to help us writers learn to create these kinds of characters.

Lailu - Hannah sketch

Lailu and Hannah character sketch.

WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER IN LITERATURE?

He asked us this question early on in the workshop and I was honestly stumped. My absolute favorite character? That’s a harder question than “what’s your favorite book,” in my opinion, because all books are filled with multiple characters, and I might love a character but not love the book…I settled on my childhood hero, Alanna, from Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet series, but really, I’m still thinking.

CHARACTER-DRIVEN VS. PLOT-DRIVEN:

Okay, this is another phrase I’m sure all of you have heard a lot. Most of the time it’s best to create character-driven stories, where the plot springs organically from the actions and characteristics of the characters themselves. In other words, what’s happening in the plot is happening because the characters are determining it.

However, Harwell said there’s really nothing wrong with plot-driven stories as well. He gave “The Westing Game” and “The Lightning Thief” as examples of solid plot-driven books. I think his exact words were, “Plot-driven doesn’t have to be some kind of dirty word.” He just stressed that you still need “real” characters in these plot-driven stories; you need to take the time to develop characters who stand apart, who aren’t just clichés or stereotypes.

PRE-WRITING:

In order to develop your characters, Harwell recommends doing some pre-writing before getting started on your book, or even while you’re working on your book. One method he suggested was creating “character journals.” He first heard the term from author Jennifer Castle who uses this method to create depth in her characters. For those of your wondering, it’s exactly what it sounds like – journals written “by” your characters in their voice, with their point of view. Castle usually starts off with a few simple questions, like “Where is this character writing? Why are they writing?” From there she just lets her characters talk, and she finds that their voices come out on their own.

Another method is to ask yourself questions about your character. Harwell used the example, “How would your character respond to, ‘hey, I like your shirt?'” From their response you can determine if your character is self-confident, anxious, sarcastic, etc. The danger with this method is that it becomes very easy to reduce a character to one adjective, like “rebellious,” and suddenly they are like this all the time. And that’s not realistic. People change; no one is one thing all the time, so your characters have to change as well.

Harwell gave the example of Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Hermione lies to the teachers about the troll attack, taking the blame and stopping Ron and Harry from getting in trouble. This is unexpected for a goody-goody strict rule-follower, and yet it’s totally believable. As Harwell said, “It’s always the moments that surprise us that make a character come alive.”

IMAGINE YOUR CHARACTERS:

Harwell asked us a series of questions to think about as we write our stories, which I’m just going to list here for all of you now:

  • Where does the plot come in?
  • Do the plot and character arcs closely relate to each other?
  • Does something inside this hero have a volatile reaction to this plot?
  • Does the plot transform the hero?
  • Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
  • In the end, is the hero the only person who can solve the problem?
  • Does the plot ironically contrast wit the hero’s expectations?
  • Do the inner struggle and outer struggle both resolve at the climax?
  • Is the problem that is realized in the beginning resolved in the final scene?

Spoiler – it’s best if you can answer “yes” to all of these. 🙂

Another thing to keep in mind is the idea of internal and external conflict. Your main character should be internally struggling through the story even as he/she is fighting against whatever odds/villain/situation he/she has been thrown into, and it’s most exciting when the internal and the external line up and solve each other. For example, a character struggling to learn how to stand up for herself figures it out in time to stand up to the bully that’s been tormenting her, solving both her problems. Kind of a weak example, but you get the idea.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

If you’re doing your job pre-writing, creating character journals, or using whatever method works for you to create well-developed characters, you’re going to have a lot of information about each character lying around. Harwell stressed that it doesn’t need to all go on the page. In fact, most of it shouldn’t. Think of an iceberg – only the tip is visible through the page of your story, but the rest is lurking underneath, hinted at and felt by the reader.

“The clearer it is in your mind, the clearer it will be on the page.” – Andrew Harwell

So now it’s your turn – do you pre-write? What methods do you use? And who is your favorite character in literature? Oh, and stay tuned because there’s more fun to be had tomorrow when I break down Katherine Longshore’s workshop, “Putting the Real into Fiction.”

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