MYC: Build Your Main Character

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll  discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the Big Idea to Querying. Last week, we covered the Big Idea and using Creativity to help you Create Loglines. This week, I’ll discuss Developing Main Characters.

Character development is critical to your story’s success and one of your most important pre-writing activities. You can probably begin writing your story with only a sketchy plot, but if you start writing without “knowing” your main character(s), it will be difficult to create a memorable story that connects with readers.

Task: Create a main character that readers are willing to root for throughout your story.

Within the first few pages, you must find a way to make the reader care about what happens to your main character. How do you do that? Develop deep, multilayered characters. Even if every detail doesn’t make it to the page, knowing your character as well as you know yourself will make your story stronger.

To create an interesting main character the reader will care about, you need to know the answers to these questions.

  • What makes your character special (talent, ability, difficulty)?
  • What’s your character’s weakness/flaw (what must she/he overcome for the conflict to be resolved)?

To answer those questions, consider the four main layers that make a character whole.

The Layers That Make Up a Character

Think through all the layers of your character before you begin to write. Often my main character comes to mind almost completely formed. Sometimes, it takes more effort. In both cases, I often fix a pot of tea and interview my main character(s) early in the prewriting process.

  • Outside identity:  age, name, gender, race, skin color, quirks, physical features [eye and hair color, birthmarks, teeth, height, body size, voice, teeth (crooked, missing, braces), health status, outstanding features (lazy eye, big nose, ears that stick out, mole, scar, birthmark, lost limb)]
  • Inside identity:  personality, traits, religion, values, sexuality, intellectual ability, gender, fears, mental health, beliefs
  • Frame (what makes up the character’s world):
    • family structure (parents happily married? birth order? dysfunctional family? traditions?)
    • house rules (no opposite sex in the bedroom? shoes off at door? anything goes in this house? strict parents?)
    • foods (ethnic? home-cooked meals? take-out? packaged foods?)
    • Economic status: rich, middle-class, poor
    • Social status: popular, community-minded, philanthropic, troublemakers, elitists, reclusive
  • Voice: How your character communicates the story. This will overlap with all the above and we’ll be focusing more on voice later in the series, but here are a few ideas to jumpstart your character into a bit of dialogue.
    • Consider these together:
      •  Age and birth order: these help shape personality which give your character a unique perspective
      •  Maturity: this will influence your character’s reactions and attitude
      •   Sense of humor: fart jokes or Shakespearean pun
    • Now, consider how your character communicates.
      • Writes notes, letters, poetry? texts? face to face? avoids others?
      • Type of words: short and to the point? flowery?
      •  How does your character convey their message: sarcasm? jokes? direct? indirect?

Final Important Tips About Your Main Character

1. Avoid Stereotypes!

If you chose to ignore this advice (don’t do it!!!), turn the stereotype on its ear or balance the stereotype out by adding many details to give your character depth.

Examples:

  • nerdy smart person (balance: very friendly and outgoing, loves riding dirtbikes)
  • troublemaking poor person (balance: who makes trouble for all the right reasons)
  • sassy black girl (balance: with high values that she’s willing to stand up for)

More tips for avoiding stereotypes: https://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-ten-ways-to-avoid-cliches-and-stereotype

2. Show/Don’t Tell!

Page after page of descriptions is a sure way to turn off readers. You definitely will need some telling, but try to convey details about your character through action or comparison.

Examples:

1. Character is an atheist (using action instead of telling)

Tell: She’d been an atheist from the minute she found out her Grandma left all her money to a televangelist.

Show: Even though her family still said grace before dinner, she’d given up on God the minute she found out her Grandma left all her money to a televangelist.

2. Character is white and artistic (using comparison instead of telling)

Tell: She was a white girl who loved to draw.

Show: She peeked into the classroom door to check out the other students before she walked in. Was she going to be the only white girl in the drawing camp?

I’ll end this post with a few resources. Come back next Wednesday when we’ll discuss Supporting Characters!

Resources: Tips and Worksheets on Building Character

https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/character-questionnaire/gotham

http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html

http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/14-tips-for-building-character/

http://fuckyeahcharacterdevelopment.tumblr.com/post/50825149893/character-sheets-and-character-creation

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Creativity to the Rescue: Finding BIG Ideas

As a piggyback to last week’s BIG IDEAS post in our Master Your Craft Series, it occurred to me that many of our readers may still be struggling with their concept not being quite BIG enough to commit months or maybe years to writing a story. Or maybe you’ve only got a small nugget of an idea. So what do you do?

First let’s break concept down into bite size chunks.

Inciting Incident: The “what now” that sets your story in motion! This is the scene where something happens to cause the protagonists to change course.

Protagonist: A main character with specific characteristics.

Goal: What must your main character achieve in your story?

Stakes: What will happen if the protagonist don’t achieve his/her goal?

If you have these four ingredients, you can write a logline.

Standard logline: When/After {INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS}, a {PROTAGONIST} must {GOAL}, or else {STAKES}.

But what if you don’t have all those ingredients? Well, it’s going to be difficult to write a story! You need a creativity boost!

There’s been much written about how to maximize your creativity. Basically, you need a method for opening your mind to jiggle loose new ideas. Physical Movement often helps or sometimes a nice long bath does the trick. Sometimes we get ideas through serendipity, like from dreams or watching people, or by cross-pollinating ideas by watching the news or enjoying art. Writing prompts can help too, but sometimes you have to go grab creativity and force it to work for you.

Creativity tricks for writers:

  • Apples to Apples Game: No, I’m not asking you to play it! But you can use the game cards to help you generate ideas. There are 749 red noun (person, place, thing, or event) cards, 249 green adjective cards, and some blank cards.

Example: Say you’ve got a main character {a quiet young boy who’s ignored by his busy family}, but that’s it.

Easy! Pull out three adjective cards and three noun cards and start making some connections. Let’s pretend you get Demi Moore, The Great Depression, and NYPD for your nouns and Scary, Mysterious, and Hard-Working for your adjectives.

So obviously, a story where Demi Moore is the goal, inciting incident, or the stakes is a little bit too weird. But you see the words scary and mysterious and you might remember that Demi Moore was in the movie Ghost. Then your mind starts to pull the other words together to form a bigger idea. Let’s try inserting some of this into the standard logline structure.

After {moving into an old house in New York}, {a quiet young boy who’s normally ignored by his family} must {convince his family that their new home is inhabited by a ghost}, or else {STAKES}.

Okay, this isn’t perfect and I wouldn’t pitch it to an agent, but it’s got your brain working, which was the goal. I ran out of steam with those cards. I didn’t use them all and some of them were just used to generate other ideas (Demi Moore=ghost, NYPD=New York, The Great Depression=the time period just before their house was built). Also, I’m not done. I don’t have STAKES yet. So pull another set of cards and see what you come up with for the stakes. If you completely hate the idea, start over and draw more cards or move on to another trick.

  • The Dictionary: Just turn to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a word. Repeat this until you have an assortment of words to work with and fill in the blanks just like you did with the Apples to Apples game.
  • Magnetic Words: Every writer has those magnetic words that speak to them. (Heck, one of my favorites is the word “magnetic.”) Keep a list of your magnetic words in a handy spot (like a favorite journal or an easily accessible file) and use those to fill in the blanks just like we did with Apples to Apples.
  • Misfortune Tellers and Tarot Readings: Author John Claude Bemis has great creativity exercises on his website that can be used to help fill in the blanks for your logline.
  • Talk it out: Once you’ve used the ideas above to come up with your best possible BIG IDEA, talk it out with a friend or family member. See if they think you’ve come up with a BIG IDEA, or maybe they can help you make it BIGGER!

Happy Writing!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

4 on 400: April Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

 

Casey Buckles and the Keeper of the Ice Caves

Middle-Grade Adventure

Casey Buckles clutched the torn note, certain its words would lead to his death. He’d found the paper, jammed between the fridge and kitchen cabinet. Thinking it a lost homework page, he plucked it out, horrified at the one sentence.

He sank back in the bus’s musty seat, squeezing his hand around the ominous message. The rickety old coach jostled him about as it bumped along the dirt road. A cold sweat blanketed his arm making it look like the surface of a wet peach. He closed his eyes. The load of noisy kids and vinyl odor made his head swim with scenes of his demise: a slow death, trapped in a pool of water, freezing over.

The grayish paper lay limp across his palm as he unfurled his fingers. Although its contents freaked him out, he hadn’t shown it to his mom. She’d already been hiding her tears at him leaving. This would’ve sent her over the edge.

He smoothed the paper across his thigh to reread the chicken scratch:

Marty, your family, danger, killing, get to the ice caves.

A shiver tingled down his back at his dad’s name. His boring family being in danger was laughable, but he cursed his father all the same for sending him off to these mountains in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. His hand tremored as he hoped the note was nothing, a joke. After all, he was just going to summer camp—a camp with ice caves.

Outside the window, a dense forest slid by. Pine trees lined the road, offering peeks into the deep darkness beyond. A skittish brown squirrel flew up a tree trunk, disappearing into a shadowy knothole. Casey would’ve liked to join the squirrel. He contemplated sneaking out the bus’s emergency exit to take his chances in the forest. Bigfoot would be cake, compared to four weeks at camp, with a bunch of strangers—oh, and dying.

Enough. He clenched his jaw. His imagination might be off base with the note, but he had to be prepared to keep his family safe. Even if he knew he’d probably fail. He wasn’t athletic, couldn’t swim, and was scared of bees. Yeah, the honey making kind. How could he keep himself safe, let alone his parents?

He pulled a tablet from his backpack, giving the screen a couple of swipes to display the camp’s webpages he’d downloaded last night.

 

Sussu: Thank you for choosing The Winged Pen and trusting us with your work. First of all, I have to say well-done. This is a nice beginning with high stakes. There is a disturbance and I know what the story is about. However, 1) The pace is fast, so fast the passage sounds more like a summary. Show Casey’s reaction when he picks up the paper, his astonishment, the fear growing in his heart, and explain why he would take this threat/warning seriously. Would he hide something that would put his family in danger? 2) Although I appreciate the fact that Casey is facing the problem alone, I thought the initiative and the voice felt very mature. This being said, the writing ran smoothly and was engaging and this is something I would read. Good luck.

Jessica: This sounds like an intriguing story and I love your use of detail (vinyl odor, wet peach, etc.). However, I agree with Sussu that there is quite a bit of room for fleshing all of this out; as it stands, there are several items that might confuse the reader. In particular, it’s not clear why Casey would take the threat seriously, especially since we are told that the thought of his family being in danger is laughable. It’s also not clear why he’d be imagining his own death (trapped in a pool of freezing water) so vividly. Finally, I’d encourage you to flesh out how/why he feels responsible for keeping his family safe–since he’s left his family behind, what makes him think there’s anything he can or might be expected to do? The way the note is written, it sounds to me like he’ll be safe at camp and thus should be more worried about the family he left behind. Thank you for sharing your work and best of luck with your revisions!

Laurel: Are there really ice caves in Idaho? What a fascinating setting! This passage made me think about how to decide what information to withhold and what to reveal. I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to suppress the contents of the note. It almost feels like the suspense would be greater if we knew what it said up front. Say, right after the one horrifying sentence. 🙂 If Casey then thought about all the reasons this message was bad, the tension could still escalate in the same way you’ve built it in here. Are there words missing in the sentence because Casey can’t quite make out the chicken scratch handwriting? The message’s contents could get more attention from the reader if that handwriting hint was a touch broader. I was a little puzzled that Casey thinks about keeping his family safe. The note is addressed to the father, so I thought Casey was in danger. (Hence the icy pools.) There’s a lot of nice detail in this passage that makes the setting feel real. Best wishes for many readers!!

Julie: I agree with everything that’s been said. You’ve got an exciting premise, a fabulous character name, and some intriguing details. But slowing this passage down will help draw the reader in more in this first scene. You’re trying to grab us with an intriguing first line (which is important), but since the next two sentence jump into a the past and then the next paragraph jumps forward–from the kitchen where the note was found to the bus–it’s a little jarring. I also wanted some more details about this world to give us a stronger sense of whether he’s in a present-day world or a magical/alternate world. Some of the words evoke a classic or old-timey feel (rickety old coach, ominous message, shadowy knothole), but then he’s sitting in a vinyl bus seat, swiping a tablet, and using slang like “cake” that feels much more modern. Address these few small things and I think you’ll have a winner!

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Master Your Craft: The Big Idea

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll  discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. (For more information, see last week’s intro post.) This week, I’ll discuss The Big Idea.

So you’re ready to write a novel. You’ve got a character, maybe a scene, a vague idea of the plot…you’re ready to sit down and start writing, right?

Not so fast.

Even seasoned writers can be fooled by a Shiny New Idea. So before you dive into drafting, take some time to test your book-to-be and make sure your new idea is also a Big Idea.

Here are some of the questions we Pennies ask ourselves at the dawn of a new idea:

  • Do I have passion for this story? This might seem obvious, but a novel takes a while to write, and it’s crucial that you have a deep and abiding passion that can sustain you. Another way to ask this question: Is this a story I must tell the world, or is it just a story I’d like to read? I wrote 20,000 words of my current WIP before realizing that one aspect of my story just wasn’t interesting enough to me to push me through all the research I needed to do. I’d love to read that original idea, but it isn’t a story my heart longs to tell.
  • Do I feel urgency to tell this story NOW? I have an entire file of story ideas. Some of them are really cool! But none of them are begging me to tell them right this second. That sense of urgency is another indication that this is a Big Idea.
  • Do I have a vivid protagonist with an overarching goal? In other words, who is your main character, and what does he or she want? Can you hear his or her voice? This is the foundation of any story, and if you don’t have this, it’s going to be so much harder to spin a full novel out of your idea. I’m not sure The Hobbit would have had such enduring power if Bilbo hadn’t longed with his entire being to be back in the Shire.
  • Can I visualize the entire story arc? Often the beginnings of our ideas are just the flash of a character or a scene. But of course, novels need more than one brilliant scene or one fascinating character. Take some time to consider where your story is going. What sets off the action? How does the MC change as the story progresses? What peak conflict will push your MC to the end of the story?
  • Can I write a logline for this story? If you can write a pithy pitch for your idea before you write a word of the story itself, chances are you’ve got the makings of a Big Idea.
  • Are others excited when I tell them my idea? How do your CPs react when you tell them your pitch? Are there “oohs” and “aahs”? Or are they asking questions and offering “what ifs”? Other writers are especially good at recognizing Big Ideas, and if they’re not sold, chances are you have more work to do. And it’s pretty important to get feedback at this stage, even though we can all be very protective of our fledgling stories. Our agented Pennies have reported sending slews of new ideas to their agents only to be told that none of them quite pass muster as is. Most of the time, this just means you need to do the work of fleshing out the idea and finding a unique way into the story. But it is way better to learn this before you write 60,000 words.
  • Is there a market for my idea? Although this question can put a damper on your Shiny New Idea excitement, it’s really important to do this research. Don’t be the author trying to sell a dystopian after the market flood of apocalyptic fiction!

Sadly, some story ideas are flawed from the get-go. Stubborn writers can spend years working on stories that will ultimately go nowhere…and a lot of that heartbreak can be avoided if you take a few days or weeks to really road-test your story first.

And if you can answer “YES!” to all these questions? Congratulations! You’re still not quite ready to write, but you’re one step closer to seeing your Big Idea become a Big Fat Novel.

(Need help coming up with a Big Idea? Check out this earlier Winged Pen post about creative cross-pollination, this one about writing prompts, or this one exploring where ideas come from, to get your creative juices flowing.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss Main Character Development.

Book Recommendation: THE TAKEDOWN by Corrie Wang

I received a free advanced reader copy of The Takedown in exchange for an unbiased review.

Kyla Cheng doesn’t expect you to like her. For the record, she doesn’t need you to. On track to be valedictorian, she’s president of her community club, a debate team champ, plus the yummy Mackenzie Rodriguez has firmly attached himself to her hip. She and her three high-powered best friends don’t just own their senior year at their exclusive Park Slope, Brooklyn high school, they practically define the hated species Popular. Kyla’s even managed to make it through high school completely unscathed.

Until someone takes issue with this arrangement.

A week before college applications are due, a video of Kyla “doing it” with her crush-worthy English teacher is uploaded to her school’s website. It instantly goes viral, but here’s the thing: it’s not Kyla in the video. With time running out, Kyla delves into a world of hackers, haters and creepy stalkers in an attempt to do the impossible-take something off the internet-all while dealing with the fallout from her own karmic footprint. Set in near-future Brooklyn, where privacy is a bygone luxury and every perfect profile masks damning secrets, The Takedown is a stylish, propulsive, and provocative whodunit, asking who would you rely on if your tech turned against you?
Excerpt taken from Netgalley.com

As someone who spends too much time blogging and on social media, I was drawn to issues raised in this book: lack of privacy in a connected world and what could go wrong as tech advances make it difficult to tell reality from forgery. The story’s main character, Kyla, is the kind of girl you want to hate, the popular girl that struts down the corridor at the start of school arm in arm with her besties ignoring all around her. But when a forged sex video turns everyone against her, you can’t help but sympathize, and want her to catch her hater.

The feminist story raises several  important issues. Why does no one, even her best friends, believe Kyla when she says the video is a fake? Why is the hottest guy in school not called a slut for his serial romances and that thing he can do with his thumb while the Kyla is universally shunned after the video is posted? What are the consequences of not reading those long, tedious disclosure clauses when we sign up on social media sites? Would we be able to take down a video that showed us in an unflattering light from a social media website?

Teens are warned to be careful in their use of social media every day, but the possible consequences of weak, infrequently changed passwords are portrayed credibly in this story. A must-read for those wary of identity theft and social media attacks, and those who should be. Also a reminder of the golden rule because what goes around, comes around.

The Takedown will be released tomorrow, April 11th. You can order it on the sites below.
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound

Need more book suggestions? Here are some other recent young adult contemporary and science fiction releases:
The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti
Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.