Posts Tagged ‘characters’

5 Steps for adding a new character to your (completed) novel

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

When my agent told me that I needed to add a new character to my novel – the one I’ve been working on for years and have revised countless times and considered this close to submission-ready – I wanted to make like my butterscotch tabby, Sunny, and curl up under a blanket and shut down.


But then I remembered that I’d done it before. When I was working with my editor on FLYAWAY, she also suggested that I add a new character – a “decoy boy” to distract readers from the inevitability of the main character, Stevie, getting together with the major love interest, Alan. My character The Professor was born, and he actually became the character who generated the most comments and questions from students in my school visits.

So in my quest to add a new character to my current WIP, I went back to the process I had used before and came up with these five steps:

1. Clarify the new character’s role in your novel. Will this character serve as a decoy, as The Professor did in FLYAWAY, or will they fill another role? Other possible roles might include ally or mentor to the main character or proxy for the antagonist. Being clear on the new character’s role in your novel will help you determine how much weight to give him in terms of page time and backstory.

2. Determine the relative importance of the character. Is your new character a walk-on in one scene, or will she play a major role throughout the book? The new character my agent suggested that I add in this revision only appears in a few scenes and has little direct impact on the plot. Because of his relatively minor importance, I was careful not to flesh him out so fully that he drew undue reader attention.

3. Decide which other characters the new character will connect with. How tightly is this character woven into the weave of the story? Does he interact mostly with the main character, or will he connect to one or more minor characters as well? Will he live in one plot line or be part of several subplots? In order to weave my new character more closely into my story, I gave one of my main character’s friends a secret crush on him.

4. Create a name and a backstory relative to the character’s weight in the plot. This step is tricky. We writers love to create characters. I could have easily written a 10-page biography of my new character in which I explored his childhood and how it has impacted his current hopes, dreams, and fears. But since my character has relatively little importance compared to my major and supporting characters, I fleshed out only the essential elements of his backstory. I made notes on his name and age, his status in the school hierarchy, his interest in music, and why he’s attracted to my main character. That’s all the information I really needed. And because his relative importance to the plot is so minimal, I decided that my main character wouldn’t refer to him by name; she calls him Knit Hat Boy.

5. Choose the scenes in which the character will appear. Now that you’ve determined your character’s role in your novel, decided on her relative importance, and created an appropriate name and backstory, it’s time to “shoehorn” her into your already completed book. To complete this step, I read through my manuscript, and using Comments in Track Changes, noted the location of each scene where my new character would appear. Some of these were scenes I’d written previously that I planned to revise to include him; others were scenes I needed to add.

With your backstory notes and Comments in front of you, the final step, of course, is to write your new character into the novel. Easy? No. Worth it? In my case, yes. Thanks to my agent’s advice, I now have a new character who adds one more subtle layer of depth to my story.

Have you ever had to write a new character into an already completed manuscript? How did it go for you? What were the challenges you encountered?

Diversity Dilemma

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

I’m afraid to write this post. Why? Because it’s about diversity in YA fiction, and writing about diversity is almost as scary as writing diverse characters. There’s a sense that you need to walk on eggshells, that at any moment you’re liable to say something offensive, un-PC, or just plain wrong.

The call to write diverse characters is everywhere, but when you’re not LBTQ, disabled, or a Person of Color, doing so is stepping into a minefield. No one sets out to create a character who is a stereotype. But when you’ve been fed those stereotypes all your life through the media and the institutionalized biases that run rampant in our culture, they can be hard to see beyond. Even worse, you may think you’re writing an authentic character, unaware that you’re reinforcing one of those very stereotypes.

A related problem occurs when you intentionally try to write against stereotype. The thinking goes like this: There is a stereotype out there of the young black man who is an unemployed, drug-dealing thug. Therefore the young black man in my book needs to aspire to a law degree from Harvard, speak the Queen’s English, and spend his spare hours doing volunteer work at the local hospital. Your character then becomes just as cardboard as the original stereotype, and what’s more, if your book’s setting is a crime-ridden inner city, downright unbelievable (is it okay that I said that??). This whitewashed, pardon the irony, version of your character is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to the original stereotype, and therefore calls attention to that stereotype.

So how does a straight white woman like me go about creating characters who are very different from her? I don’t know, but I imagine that the answer lies in a combination of research, beta readers…and a bit of trust in our shared humanity. Through research, I can learn about the cultures of those different from myself, and once I’ve finished a draft, beta readers can reflect back to me any insensitive material I’ve unwittingly introduced into my work.

But the most important tool I have is empathy. Our skin colors and sexual orientations may be diverse, but my characters and I share primary human emotions and universal life experiences. If I can tap into the deep well of my feelings and experiences, I know I will find a connection with my characters whether they’re black or white, abled or disabled, straight or gay.

So I pledge to move forward boldly and do my best to bring diversity to my YA fiction. The danger of leaving deserving teens without books that reflect their backgrounds and experience trumps my personal fear of getting it wrong.

First person or third person? That is the question

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Now that I’ve returned from my trip to the Oregon Coast…

Sea Rocks


And the Redwoods…

Helen Tree Dance

…I’m back to work on my new novel.

I’ve run into a snag, though: I can’t decide whether to write it in first or third person. I’ve now written three YA novels in first person present tense, and I’m wondering whether it’s time for a change. I’ve tried the opening scene in both first and third person, and there are things I like – and don’t like – about each of them.

Things I Love about First Person:

It fits me like a comfortable old shoe. I connect immediately to my main character, and I enjoy being right in her head, experiencing the story along with her. And scenes between two females are easy to write, because I can just use “I” for my main character and “she” for the other character in the scene.

Things that are Challenging about First Person:

It can get a little claustrophobic spending all my time in my main character’s head. Not only am I limited to writing about the parts of the story that she experiences, I can only write with her vocabulary, from her point of view. Sometimes, for example, I’ll think of a great way to describe a setting, but then I’ll think, “No, my character would never see it that way.”

Things I Like about Third Person:

Notice that I used “like” instead of “love.” I seldom write in third person, but in experimenting with it this week, I can see that it does have its benefits. It allows me to be more of a narrator, using a wider language palette and describing things in my own way. Third person also makes it easier to dole out essential information. For example, if I want my readers to know that Emmy is my main character Desiree’s best friend, I can just say, “her best friend, Emmy.” If I’m writing in first person, I have to be a little sneakier about stuff like that.

Things that I Hate about Third Person:

I’m fine with reading novels written in third person, but I feel awkward writing them. I feel distant and disconnected from my characters, and I find my sensibility drifting into adult territory, rather than sticking with a teen point of view. Also, it really sucks writing a scene in third person between two or more people of the same sex. Because there’s no “I,” and just calling everyone “he” or “she” can get confusing, you have to keep writing characters’ names.

So my dilemma here is whether to go with what’s comfortable and has worked for me in the past or to challenge myself to learn a new skill. Who knows? If I give it a chance, maybe I’ll come to love writing in third person.

Which do you prefer as a reader, first person or third person? How about as a writer? Have you ever had trouble deciding which  POV to use? How did you resolve your dilemma?

It’s not all about the main character

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

I’ve had a revelation. When I tell you what it is, I know many of you will roll your eyes and say, “Well, duh.” But I finally understand a concept that should have been completely obvious: Though the main character is at the center of your story, the story’s not all about the main character.

What does that mean? It means there are other characters in the story: the antagonist, the love interest, the best friend, the parents – all the people that surround and populate the main character’s life. Each one of these characters has a story of  their own which intersects with the narrative arc of the main character. And each character is privy to at least one piece of the main character’s story and therefore has his or her own version of that story.

A simple idea, but it’s rocking my writing world. I hadn’t realized it, but I was being egocentric about my writing, seeing the story as revolving around the main character, with the other characters simply there to prop her up and make events happen. (Well, maybe not that bad, but close.) This egocentricity may have been exacerbated by the fact that I love to write in first person – or maybe I choose to write in first person because I’m an egocentric writer. Either way, I now see how this way of looking at my novels has led to incomplete development of my secondary characters.

After having this epiphany, I sat down and wrote out the entire plot of my story from the perspective of my main character’s best friend. Being clear on his journey will help me understand where he’s coming from in his scenes with her. I also now have a clearer picture of some of the events that take place “offstage,” when he’s not on the scene – all of which, I hope, will make my story richer and more real for my readers.

If you’ve been reading this post and thinking, “I’ve known that forever,” I salute you. But if the idea of seeing your story from the perspective of other characters sparks any aha’s for you, I hope you’ll tell me about them. I’d hate to feel I’m the only writer for whom this is a revelation.


Character Interview

Friday, April 27th, 2012

As I mentioned in my last post, I was inspired by Rachel Vail‘s keynote at the SCBWI WWA conference to get to know my characters better. So yesterday, I sat down with the main character of my WIP for an interview. I find that character interviews are one of the best ways to learn more about the people that inhabit my stories. There’s something about the question-and-answer format that allows stuff I haven’t thought about consciously to come through.

To do a character interview, I open a Word doc and, in bold, type a question I want my character to answer, for example, “What are you most scared of?” Then, in regular font, I write my character’s answer. I try not to think as I do this, just let the words flow. Because of that, some really surprising information comes out of these interviews.

For example, yesterday I asked Joan, my MC, what she was most afraid of. She told me she was really scared of being attacked and raped, and because of that, she avoids walking alone at night and always carries the pepper spray her mom gave her. I had no idea! And, of course, I may use that information at some point to enrich my plot. Or maybe I won’t, and it will just help me understand where Joan’s coming from a little better.

Here are some standard questions I ask in a character interview:

How would you describe yourself?

How do you think other people would describe you?

What makes you happiest?

When are you most unhappy?

What frightens you the most?

Where do you think that fear came from?

How does this fear affect your life?

Can you tell me something about yourself that you’ve never told anyone else?

Is there anything I can do better in telling your story?

Often the answers to these generic questions will lead to other questions that are specific to my novel.

So if you want to get to know your characters better, try a character interview. Feel free to use my questions. You can also find a list of 100 interview questions here.

Have you ever done a character interview? If so, what’s your favorite question to ask your characters?