Teachers Write 7.30.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Chris Tebbetts

Good morning!  Jo has your Monday Morning Warm-Up here… and Chris Tebbetts joins us with today’s mini-lesson. Chris is the author and co-author of many books for young readers.  Titles include the #1 New York Times bestselling MIDDLE SCHOOL series, as well as PUBLIC SCHOOL SUPERHERO, with James Patterson and illustrator Laura Park; the New York Times bestselling STRANDED series with Jeff Probst; and the young adult novel M OR F? with Lisa Papademetriou. His work has received children’s choice awards in Oregon and Hawaii, as well a Sunshine State Young Readers Award nomination, and a nod on the New York Public Library’s annual list of Books For the Teen Age. Watch for his YA novel, ME, MYSELF, AND HIM next summer—and in the meantime, you can reach him with questions or school visit inquiries at www.christebbetts.com.

Three Steps to Character Dimension:
Internal Conflict, Contradiction, and Shadow Traits

I often think in terms of duality when I’m writing. I ask myself, what are the two sides to this story, this scene, this moment?

Or, for the purposes of today’s mini-lesson: what are the two sides to the characters I create? It’s a question that helps make the people who populate my stories more interesting, more human, more complex, and usually, more relatable.

To that end, here are three items for your writer’s toolbox; three ways to bring out the dimension in your own characters.

1) Internal Conflict

We all know that a story needs some sense of stakes. Your character needs a goal, and that goal needs to be impeded by some collection of obstacles and antagonist(s), creating the external conflict of your story.

But how about internal conflict? What conflicting stakes might exist—or could exist—within your character’s situation?

For Katniss Everdeen, there’s a driving tension at the heart of the story, between the rules of the Hunger Games (kill!) and her own moral compass (don’t kill!).

For Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean, it’s an internal conflict between his obligations to Cosette and to the rule of law, embodied by the story’s antagonist, Javert.

And for Ramona Quimby, it exists as a constant tension between what she knows she should do and what she wants to do.

What about in your own works in progress? Is there a way to complicate your character’s situation by giving her more than one want? And by making those wants mutually exclusive?

2) Contradiction

As Walt Whitman’s famous quote goes, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Contradiction in characters is nothing new. It’s as old as story itself. And yet, at the same time, I have this sense that audiences are increasingly open to the idea of characters who don’t always turn one-plus-one into two. Characters who are more than one thing at the same time. Characters who contradict themselves and contain the multitudes that go with it.

In his excellent book, THE ART OF CHARACTER, David Corbett distills the role (and value) of contradiction into two things: 1) It defies expectations; and 2) It depicts complexity and depth.

He goes on to say:

“Developing a character with genuine depth requires a focus on not just desire but how the character deals with frustration of her desires, as well as her vulnerabilities, her secrets, and especially her contradictions. This development needs to be forged in scenes, the better to employ your intuition rather than your intellect.”

I like the way he emphasizes intuition in this case, since we’re dwelling into aspects of character that don’t always make sense on paper, but are, at the same time, completely and realistically human.

3) Shadow Traits

Here’s a bit more from THE ART OF CHARACTER:

“The tension created by these two antagonistic impulses – to control our behaviour so we “get along” and to let go and “be ourselves” – forms one of the core conflicts of our lives. And conflict is inherently dramatic…. For every trait we publicly exhibit, its opposite lurks somewhere in our psyches.  These shadow traits may be feeble and ill-formed from lack of conscious use, but they exist – meaning that if a character acts unbelievably, we can make what he does seem more organic if we find a way to root it in the battle between the character’s conscious and suppressed behavior.”

Even as I write this article, I’m aware of the overlap between these ideas. Internal conflict is a kind of contradiction. And contradiction might easily contain some element of these so-called shadow traits, like Katniss Everdeen’s savage side, the part of her that comes out only by necessity. (Notice how that story begins with a hunting scene, where she’s killing wild game to provide for her family.)

That said, it’s not as important to me for these ideas to be distinct from one another as it is to find ways of asking myself useful questions about my characters along the way. To that end, here’s an assignment and some additional food for thought to consider:

Your Assignment:  This exercise is based on ideas from “Composing A Life,” by Mary Catherine Bateson, a sociologist (and also Margaret Mead’s daughter). For more, I suggest listening to Bateson’s interview on the On Being podcast from a few years ago.

In the meantime, you can apply this exercise to any of your characters, or even to yourself, which can also be illuminating.


What are the two sides of your character’s story? That might refer to her entire lifetime; her arc within the story; a specific scene or chapter; or even an individual moment. Almost always, at whatever scale, there is more than one thing going on.

I’ll use myself as an example. Both of these stories about me are true to my experience:

Story 1: In high school, I lived in the coolest little hippie town in America, surrounded by an academic, artistic, and diverse community. I was popular, confident, and involved in all kinds of extra-curricular activities. I loved my friends, and felt like I could truly be myself around them.  I learned a ton in those four years, and I’ve never lived anywhere like it since.

Story 2: In high school, I lived in the most boring little town in America, surrounded by corn fields and pig farms. I was deeply closeted and keeping it a secret, not just from everyone around me, but also from myself.  There was still so much I didn’t know. In fact, all I really knew was that I couldn’t wait to get out of Yellow Springs, Ohio.


Now look for the continuity between those two sides of the story. Bateson poses this as a sociological question, but I’ve borrowed it with my storyteller’s hat on. What is it about your character (or yourself) that unites those seemingly conflicting truths?

Working off my own example, I’d say that the continuity for me was in two things: SMALL TOWN LIFE and SURVIVAL. Which is to say, yes, I grew up in a really cool little town, and yes, it was still (for me) the absolute middle of nowhere. Also, while one part of me thrived in high school, that was only possible because I was also keeping another part of myself hidden from the world.


Write a scene that captures some of this duality. How might the contradiction manifest? And how might the continuity? Maybe it’s a scene you can use in your finished story. Or maybe it simply helps inform your overall writing process. Either way, I hope it might be useful for some of you.


Some questions to consider if you’re feeling stuck:

What is/are your character’s internal conflict(s)?

Are there competing stakes in your story? Two things the character wants, but can’t have both? If not, would that improve the story?

What is/are your character’s shadow trait(s)?

Where at the beginning of your story is the person your character will (or might) become?  Can you show the potential for that change? (And do you want to?)

How is your character the same (and changed) at the end of the story?

Feel free to share a bit of what you wrote today in the comments if you’d like!

15 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.30.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Chris Tebbetts

  1. Dear Chris,
    Thanks for dropping by and the lesson. The great thing about Teachers Write, among many great things, is that it allows us to find out about authors we may not be familiar with. Your Stranded Series looks so interesting. I’m going to look into it for my library students. I think they’d be the perfect age and they certainly like adventure. Best wishes.

    Here is a rough snippet from my current YA work in progress which I think draws on the exercise given. Thanks again.

    Everybody in Seaport knows I’m the girl that killed two men and would pull the trigger again in a heartbeat. But a justified shooting doesn’t mean I’m cleared of the nightmares or not haunted by the roar of the bullet and the thud it made when it entered their bodies and stopped their hearts.

    1. Thanks, Martha! I hope your kids enjoy Stranded! In addition to school visits, I offer free 30-minute Skype Q&A sessions with any groups who have read at least one of my books — feel free to be in touch if there’s any interest. And–wow(!) on your passage. Great setup, and yeah, I can easily see the potential for some fruitful contradictions in this character. Sounds like she’s the protagonist, but it makes me think about how important it is to have well-thought antagonists as well, with their own sense of why they do the things they do. Happy writing!

      1. Thank you for the kind words and I will keep the Skype session in mind. That would be terrific.

  2. Thank you for another great exercise! I selected one of the secondary characters from my WIP because I needed to understand her better in order to flesh out her role in the story. I discovered some important things about this character as I explored the two sides of her story.

    Story 1: I’m your shadow friend. I’m one of those friends that you only hang out with at school or when it’s convenient, but our relationship is only just a shadow of a real friendship. Yeah, we talk about things at school and we eat lunch together every day, but I don’t know much about you. You keep a lot hidden from me and I don’t think that you trust me to know the real you. I want to be more than a shadow friend who’s convenient to have around during the school day. I want you to confide in me so that I can confide in you.

    Story 2: Every day at lunch, I sit with Alex and Abby. We have our own special group at our own special place in the cafeteria. We always sit at the first table as you enter the cafeteria, but we pick seats at the far end of the table. Alex always has something sweet in her lunch because her Mom is the best baker and she shares everything. Abby always has healthy stuff in her lunch, but she doesn’t turn down Alex’s sweets. I usually end up buying lunch and after days of eating rubbery chicken nuggets, those cookies and brownies are a real treat.

    1. I love a lot about this — including how apt this exercise can be for the young characters who populate our stories, given that it’s a time of life where so many of us are (or were) called upon to start figuring out who we are, in a whole new way. I also like the way you differentiated between the two stories with direct address and a more straightforward first person narration. Very cool. Lastly, I love hearing that this led you to some sense of discovery here. That’s just about my favorite thing on a good writing day — learning something new from the combination of ingredients I’ve already put in place. Good luck with this!

  3. Chris,
    Thanks for the great exercise. I have been working on a fiction story with my daughter about some of the things she experienced while growing up (she is 23 now). She is adopted, and really struggled throughout her childhood, but mostly on the inside. One of the experiences she mentions was that in 5th grade, a boy behind her said he couldn’t see the board because of my daughter’s big hair (and she was quite tall in 5th grade, until everyone else caught up to her). She was really embarrassed about this, and started to always pull her hair in a bun. Writing this just today, I realized that I am “telling” more than “showing.” Needs more revision.

    Walking to the student section of the football game, I had high fives from at least ten people. Claire and Paige had saved me a seat. Matt and Spencer were behind us, and my 5th grade self worried that someone wouldn’t be able to see over by “big hair,” and so I pulled it into a tight bun, sleeked down the sides and top with gel. Why is it that I am friends with all these people, and I really like Matt, but he only sees me as a fun Polynesian girl? Boys like me, but they don’t date me. On the outside, I am the fun Polynesian girl, but on the inside…I hurt. My face has a smile on it, my body movements are confident, my eyes light up, and I joke around in conversation. But my heart…in my bedroom…later that night….I feel isolated; I feel alone.

  4. Also, I forgot to mention that I teach high school, and I look forward to your YA novel coming soon. I like to read middle school books, too, and your Stranded series looks interesting. Probably would be great for our ASL students. I will also think about a Skype. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks for sharing all this, Kay! I (think I) see how you’re pulling that dual narrative into one scene here, which can be such a potent thing to do, and feels very human as well. Life is complicated, right? And being young offers no exemption from that fact. … I’m also guessing that with future revision, and as you fall deeper and deeper into this story, you’ll find more ways to winnow out your telling in favor of showing — or (in my experience) sometimes simply winnowing out the telling, which feels more necessary in earlier drafts as we find the story for ourselves, and before we translate what we need to know (a ton) into what the reader needs to know (less than a ton) about any given character or situation. It makes me think of the Stephen King quote about how we write the first draft for ourselves and the next draft for the reader. Either way, you have a potent situation here, where something as “simple” as a character’s hair can speak to some of the larger issues in your story. More duality! (I call that double duty in my writing workshops — letting the ingredients of the story work FOR us, doing more than one thing at a time.)

      1. ps — All of that said…. I also hear more and more people pushing back on the “show don’t tell” idea…. which is to say, it’s good advice in good measure, but sometimes telling is just what the reader wants, to help things move along more efficiently.

  5. This reminded me of my boys who are always in flux and contradicting what they want and need with where they are. My youngest at five had a lot of wanting to be older ideas but was still so young…
    “Mommy look my legs are longer,” a gruffy voice startles me. I grab at tiny toes dangerously close to my eyes. Jeremy is awake before his brother, as usual, jumping inches from my head. This is his fifth birthday. A whole hand! My heart cannot bear it. My baby growing up.
    He is always making observations, so naïve and adorable, his voice always excited as if these discoveries are his alone. He is trying to balance on one leg to show me how much he’s grown.. A whole hand, but only one.. My throat tenses remembering his infancy and knowing this year he will be in kindergarten. This year he will begin to grow away from us.
    “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy turn your face.” he insists pushing my chin his direction. “Look!” he shouts stretching all three feet ten inches of his five year old skin. “Today. Today. Today, (gasp) I’m gonna watch a scary movie.”
    Again he makes me chuckle, forgetting I am tired. He crawls under the covers and pushes his face into my pillow. His wispy light brown hair fans out against my cheek.
    “Mmm, so cozy,” he whispers, his breath warm against me..
    “Jeremy I don’t think you are big enough for a scary movie,” I say in a tone that says no way mister.
    He turns, looks very seriously and raises his eyebrows. A new trick. He giggles. Still his baby giggle. Rolling to his back to hold his belly.
    “What do you want to do today for your fifth birthday?”
    “Gameworks!” he shouts now standing again on the bed, waking our Jack Russell Terrier who jumps down and crawls under the bed knowing Jeremy will likely fall on him.
    “Gameworks? I thought you didn’t like the games there?” I ask rolling over to give him more room to fall. I suspect Jeremy has chosen to eat lunch and play video games at Gameworks because of some campaigning from his nine year old brother, John.
    He bounces down on his butt and into my stomach. He pats it and smoothes down my tee shirt.
    “Hey, Mommy, how come your belly is still big if we’re not getting no more babies?”
    Ah, so many questions to digest in one morning. Jeremy remembers everything. Promises need to be kept with this one and private conversations had at a whisper. He must have overheard my emotional speech the night before with my husband about how old the boys are and how much I would have loved more children. How to explain to a five year old that life is less about the choices you make than those that are made for you?
    “Well Mommy needs to get healthy that is why my belly is so big. There is not a baby in Mommy’s belly anymore. You are Mommy’s baby. Just you and Johnny. No more babies. Mommy only has two hands. Who will hold the baby?”
    “Daddy can!”

    1. This really shows me how that duality can be woven right into a scene. And I like how the whole duality motif is applicable to characters of (and material for) any age; how universal it is. PLUS, there’s a kind of braided quality here, since each character palpably has more than one thing going on. That’s a lot to work with (in a good way). Very nice.

  6. Chris – thank you so much for this lesson. I think that is is not only a great way to think about characters, but a great way to reflect on yourself. I hope to use this activity with my students so they can reflect on the stories in their lives and how they may be one person with teachers, another with friends, and even another with family. I really appreciate you opening up personally in the example and sharing your work. Here are two of my own personal stories:
    Story 1: I grew up in an academically and artistically rigours high school where the arts helped me foruish socially, artistically, and academically. I had a vast network of friends from different circles which helped me to appreciate other perspectives and life experiences.

    Story 2: I grew up in a wealthy, predominantly white high school with other like-minded, similarly brought up, wealthy white kids. My friends often had the same beliefs and same interests and me and I subconsciously assumed that the world was fair and I did not possess a special privilege.

    Thanks again!

    1. Hey Michelle — I’m glad you liked it (and may find a place to use it with your students!). I just used it with a group of teens a few weeks ago, and I think they liked it a lot. And I like using the occasional personal reference, just in terms of talking about the connection between our writing and ourselves. I like your example as well; there’s a subtlety to the difference there that I found compelling–it speaks to a potential YA character (in my mind, anyway) loud and clear!

      1. Thank your for the feedback! I am really interested in growing my YA reading and potentially writing in the future. I hope to use this activity with my students this year and am encouraged by your success with a group of teens. Thanks again!