August 4th, 2009
Welcome to Week 4 of the Teen Author Challenge!
Congratulations again to Mrs. V. of Mrs. V’s Reviews for being the first monthly winner of the Teen Author Challenge Contest! Keep participating for your chance to win the book of your choice from my writing shelf AND to achieve your goal of having a complete, polished manuscript when the TAC ends in June 2010. You can do it!
This week, we’re going to be talking about how to bring characters to life. But first, a bit of inspiration.
Teen Author Challenge, Week 4
If there’s one thing readers tend to agree on, it’s that characters can make or break a book. Yes, the story and plot need to be well-developed so the book doesn’t drag along endlessly. But even the fastest-paced, most intricately-woven adventure story in existence needs characters you can root for. Otherwise, no one’s going to care about all the obstacles they’re overcoming.
We’ll talk more about the actual writing process beginning next week. But today, I want to touch on the basics of character development. The first thing to know is that how much character development needs to be done in advance is different for every author.
Some authors have to know every single thing about a character–down to her favorite flavor of ice cream or whether he’s a boxers or briefs kind of guy–before they can sit down to write.
Some authors lay out only the fundamentals about their main characters and let themselves uncover more details organically as the story unfolds.
And naturally, some authors find themselves somewhere in between. It’s all about figuring out what your ideal writing process is and embracing that.
So what if you don’t have your ideal writing process all figured out? My suggestion is to begin by knowing the basics about your characters. What constitutes the basics? They generally fall into three categories:
** Physical Attributes
Yes, there are TONS more things that you can know about your characters. But rather than overwhelming you with all the possibilities, we’ll be looking at three basic categories that can help you get a handle on your characters.
If you’re going to be writing about a character, it’s helpful to be able to picture that character in your mind. Why? Because readers need to be able to picture them too. In addition to the attributes that make up our physical person, our outward appearance is also affected by our choices about our appearance. With that in mind, here are a few things you may want to know about your character:
** How would you describe your character’s basic physical attributes: hair/eye/skin coloring, height, weight, etc.?
** What unique physical attributes (freckles, walking with a limp, large feet, etc.) does your character have?
** How do your characters present themselves to the world around them? (Fashion choices, sense of style or lack thereof, how much they pay attention to their appearance, etc.)
Think about twins for a moment. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen may have the same features, but they have very different appearances because of the way they choose to present themselves to the world. Those choices can be powerful indicators of the person underneath.
Moving beyond the visual, every person makes an impact on those around them by the way we interact with other people. That’s where personality comes into play. There are a myriad of facets to our personalities–same goes for our characters–but narrowing it down to the few that most influence a character’s behavior can help you get a clear grasp of who they are. It’s also helpful for making sure that their actions in the story are well-motivated and don’t appear to come out of left field.
** What four words would best describe your character’s personality?
Yes, there may be a dozen or more words that describe us depending on the situation we’re faced with. We may be shy in large groups where we feel uncomfortable but witty when we’re hanging with friends. But if you can narrow it down to four words that paint a clear picture of your character’s personality MOST of the time, it can help ensure that your character is well-developed in your mind.
This is where your character really comes to life. Every one of us has a unique worldview that comes from our personal beliefs. Those beliefs are largely a result of our upbringing, our environment, and our life experiences. No two characters will ever be the same in this respect, just like no two people will ever be. Unless we walk around physically attached to another person, the world we experience is uniquely our own. Here are some questions to get you thinking about your characters’ personal beliefs:
** What are your characters’ soapbox issues? (What would they stand up against all odds to defend?)
** How has their upbringing affected the way they look at the world?
** How has their environment (their town, their part of the world, the physical condition of their surroundings) affected the way they look at the world?
** What life experiences have profoundly impacted the way they look at the world?
Again, these questions are not mandatory for every writer to ask themselves before they begin to write. But when you’re first starting out on your writing journey, they can be a great jumping off point to help you get a feel for how much (or how little) you need to know about your characters in advance. You can always add more questions if you crave more intel, delete questions if you only need the bare minimum of info, or change the questions entirely if other questions feel more important to you. This is simply a list of basic questions to give you a quick start in your character development work.
Grab your Teen Author Challenge notebook and answer each of these questions about your main character(s). Anyone who shares a surprising thing that they discovered about a character gets an extra entry into the Teen Author Challenge Contest!
Go forth and be creative!
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