I’ve been writing love letters to books that shaped me, as a person and as a writer, and for this month, it’s Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. I so enjoyed this book, a dreamy and beautiful retelling of the Snow Queen. What I want to talk about today, though, is how it influenced my writing.
I write contemporary fantasies, and love to come up with sumptuous settings and vast and daring adventures. When writing my first book, though, I kept getting feedback that readers weren’t connecting with the main character. I tried all the tricks for character development. I wrote questionnaires and character sketches galore. I composed backstory that would never see the light of day, and even drew pictures. Nothing.
When I met Ophelia, it finally clicked. The story is just the kind I like, with a heartbreak at its center, and an epic battle to save a beloved driving it on. But this character was so likeable. I devoured it for the story, but I studied it for the technique. How did she do that?
A few things, I decided. Done so quickly that they could easily be missed, but crucial in establishing character immediately. Consider the title of chapter one: “In Which Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard discovers a boy in a locked room and is consequently asked to save the world.” That is followed swiftly by the first line: “Ophelia did not consider herself brave.” Right away we know both that Ophelia is going to have to do something very important, and that she is not going to be thrilled about it. That makes me curious, and it makes her seem self-effacing. I like that.
Ophelia’s reluctant bravery is a characteristic carried throughout the story. Every time that marvelous boy locked in the room asks Ophelia to do something, she says no. Then, grudgingly, she does it anyway, because she can’t just leave him locked in that room. She takes on incredibly scary tasks, but hems and haws and complains the whole time, which certainly seems relatable to me. I wouldn’t want to go walking through rooms of ghosts, either.
Foxlee also gives Ophelia a few idiosyncrasies that help us to see her more clearly, and that show us Ophelia’s fear without her having to remind us. Ophelia makes lists to distract herself. She tugs on her braid when she’s worried, and when she gets really scared, she has to take a puff of her inhaler. Isn’t that perfect?
I began to think anew about other characters I love. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we see the Dursleys’ horrid treatment of Harry, and then one of the first things Harry does is free an unhappy snake from its cage. He is an underdog, and he wants to save other underdogs. In The Golden Compass, we see Lyra hide and eavesdrop, but ultimately come clean and risk punishment to protect her uncle. She is sneaky and has a strong sense of self-preservation, but also a redeeming moral code.
It isn’t merely about fleshing out character, I realized. Lists of their favorite ice cream flavors and the like weren’t helping, because they didn’t reveal what the reader needed to understand about the character for this story. Ophelia’s inhaler sure did, though. I now believe that the key to a good characterization is to understand the character’s defining quality that drives the story, then give a clear early example of it and a few tics or traits that show it throughout. For that understanding, I will always be grateful to Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy.
Ophelia had never been prophesied before. It made her feel annoyed.
Kate Hillyer writes stories about brave girls who fight for what they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She currently serves as a Cybils judge for Poetry and Novels in Verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com.