Good morning! Our Thursday Quick-Write guest author today is Heidi Schulz. Heidi’s the author of HOOK’S REVENGE, and its sequel, HOOK’S REVENGE: THE PIRATE CODE, comes out in September. Bloomsbury Kids will publish her picture book debut, GIRAFFES RUIN EVERYTHING, in Spring 2016. Heidi joins us today to talk about creating compelling characters.
No matter how compelling a story’s premise, if the characters fall flat, your reader will quickly lose interest. However, creating characters that come alive on the page is not always easy. Here are my best tips for doing so.
Know Your Characters
You should know a myriad of details about your characters. Not every fact will make its way to the page, but knowing these particulars will inform the way you present your characters.
One way to learn about your characters is to write about them, creating scraps and scenes that have little to do with your plot, but much to do with exploring the character.
For example, give them pretend job interviews, “What would you say is your greatest strength? Weakness? How would others answer this question?”
Play get-to-know-you party games with them. “What is the furthest you’ve travelled? What is the last book you read? What do you have in your pockets/purse?”
Most importantly, get personal. You will learn a lot from your characters when you ask them, “What do you want, more than anything? How does that change as you move through the story’s plot? Of what are you most afraid? For what would you sacrifice nearly anything?”
Do these exercises with all the characters in your story—main and supporting. Getting to know their interior lives and motivations will enrich your writing and cause you to fall head over heels in love with them. You will find each player fascinating. That interest will come through in your writing and compel your readers to feel the same.
Make Them Unique
We all familiar with character clichés like the popular cheerleader, the bullying quarterback, the nerdy girl who becomes beautiful, the socially awkward math whiz, the scrappy orphan, the Chosen One, or the good-hearted criminal. Perhaps your character fits in one of these categories, but reading about him/her will be flat and dull unless you find a way to subvert expectations.
What is unique about your character? Insert a bit of the unexpected to catch and hold your readers’ attention. Taking examples from movies, look to the way Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (popular cheerleader) or Will from Good Will Hunting (math whiz) turn clichés on their heads.
Even if your characters don’t fit in a standard trope, take some try to fully explore what makes them unique, interesting, and surprising.
Finding a Character’s Voice
Voice can be a challenge. How can you make your characters sound distinct: different from each other and different from your own authorial voice?
Sit in a public place and listen to the way people converse with one another. Take notes. Some people will be verbose, others far less so. Some will speak in more formal language, others in slang. Some will speak haltingly, weighing every word, others quickly, completely bypassing any brain filters they may have. Knowing what you know about your characters, what speech patterns will they have?
Pay attention to character voice in your reading. How does author word choice impact the way you view the characters? Good examples are Felicity Pickle in Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic or Doug Swieteck in Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now.
Creating distinctive voices takes practice. Try writing a piece of dialog between three or more of your characters, without using dialog tags. Ask a reader to see if they can pick out who is who.
What if you have done all these things and you still don’t feel like you have a good sense of your characters?
Revise. Revise. Revise.
Good characterization is a process. It may take writing your second draft, or third—or more—to get a clear sense of who your characters are. Every revision will bring the picture into sharper focus. In the end, you will have characters that will leap from the page. Like Dr. Frankenstein, you will be able to look at your creation and exclaim, “It’s alive!”
Today’s Assignment: Choose one of the prompts above, and get writing, getting to know your character. If you have specific questions or thoughts about creating characters, post them in the comments and we can discuss further. Good luck with your writing!