I write stuff for kids...and muse on writing, children's books, and the publishing industry in general

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My A-Z of Writing Tips: Engaging with your Characters

(Source)
So, you’ve decided who your main character is. A girl, 16 years of age. You’ve come up with a cool name; oh, let’s say, “Z”. What then? How do you bring Z to life in the mind of your readers? ‘Cause it certainly won’t be enough just to list name, age, rank, and serial number. Nor simply a physical description (and do you even want to give a detailed physical description, or let the readers imagine Z for themselves – though that’s a whole ‘nother topic in itself).

How to bring Z to life? How to make Z so engaging, so compelling, that the reader actually cares about what happens to her? Hmm…

Here are my top tips:
  • think big, and I mean BIG. Before Z can be a compelling character on paper and in the reader’s mind, she needs to exist in your own. She’s the girl who just moved in next door, but do you really want to get to know her? Or would you walk right by her in the street without even really noticing her. What, a sixteen-year-old girl just walked by??? Oops, didn’t even see her there.
  • pretend Z is a real person, with likes and dislikes, wants and needs. Some of these will be readily apparent right from the start, and others might just creep in and surprise you. Z’s phobia about turtles, for example. I mean, really, who’s scared of turtles! As your main character comes to life in your mind, that will influence the way you write about them on paper. Hard to avoid making them engaging really, when they’re so real to the writer!

  • why does she insist on being called “Z” anyway? Share enough of her past to make her interesting. She’s named after Great-Aunt Zelda. She thinks the name “Z” fits well with her spunky attitude. “M” was already taken (*waves to James Bond fans*). We won’t know unless you tell us. Or even better, show us!
  • what motivates Z? What is she after in life? Her first boyfriend. Her first kiss. Her first relationship with a vampire/werewolf/zombie/other paranormal creature. A real friend. Revenge. Acceptance. You name it, the reader will be able to better connect with your main character if they understand what motivates her.
  • how does Z react to life’s challenges? Well, she certainly doesn’t passively accept the big pie in the face from the boy down the street. And she’ll have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the altar of social responsibility and upright teenager-ness. Sometimes she just wants to stand there and yell swear-words at the top of her lungs. However Z reacts, react she should. How else do we become invested in her life? How else do we want to know what will happen to her?
See what I mean. In just a few simple sentences here in this blog, Z is already starting to spring to life. Actually, I think I might just make her the main character in my next WIP.

How about you: How do you make your characters engaging?



34 comments:

Grandpa said...

Fantastic tips Rach! I'm so gonna copy this into my "how to write fiction" notebook. Thanks!

Grandpa
Life on The Farm

M.J. Fifield said...

This is a great post with a lot of good information. My characters always get injected with what is probably an unhealthy dose of attitude and sarcasm prowess. I have no idea from where they get it.


M.J. Fifield
My Pet Blog

Donna Weaver said...

Great list. I've heard it suggested that keeping a description page for each character can save a lot of pain later on. It helps keep simple things like eye color consistent but also helps you keep motivations, etc. straight.

mooderino said...

Great post. I tend to borrow hevily from people I know. Sometimes I even keep the name the same. And then I make them do despicable things.

-mood
Moody Writing

Cally Jackson said...

Motivation is definitely one of the keys to authentic characters, in my opinion. Unfortuantely it took me a 100K draft with two dimensional characters before I really grasped that! Doh! :-)

Cally Jackson said...

Typo alert! *unfortunately* :-)

Sarah said...

Nice post. Thinking about stuff like this is essential to building three-dimensional characters.

taio said...

interesant

Cheree said...

Fantastic tips. I agree that characters have to be very engaging. I allow my characters to have the freedom to do what they want, that usually lets them develop and become frighteningly real.

Siv Maria said...

Thanks for the tips. My characters usually make me more engaging :) Seriously, I have to think more about the hows and whys when I write. I usually don't think about characters, they seem to come to life on their own. Does that make me crazy?

Kari Marie said...

Great post on Characters Rach! Love it.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Geat tips, Rach. I love that you created a character out of thin air, before our very eyes! (Are you magic?)

;-)

Hart Johnson said...

It really depends on the character, I think. Sometimes I just write a scene or two and see how they act--the personality comes through... but every book has a character or two who has a well developed backstory behind--whether it is questionable behaviors or grand misconceptions... it is how you allow a character to both act badly and still be likeable...

Ann said...

I usually see my MC from my own eye. The MC is within and looking out. Therefore I see what she sees. But I have a mirror image of how she appears to others.

I suppose I need to work on this bit more. Great tips Rachael.

E.C. Smith said...

Awesome tips. Make'em real and keep'em that way.

Before I start a book, I do huge pyschological make ups on each of my characters. . .secondary too. I want to know what makes them tick. That way I KNOW each one of them and how they'll react in a given situation. They still manage to surprise me, though...and that's half the fun. lol!

N. R. Williams said...

I do much the same as you do. First they must be real to me. I know if they are shy or flamboyant, what they desire. If I want a character flaw that I'm unfamiliar with I have resources to check how that would make them react. An illness? What are the symptoms?
Nancy
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.

Rosalind Adam said...

Some great ideas here. I was in a critique group once with someone who interviewed her characters regularly. She just sat them down opposite her at the table and fired questions at them.

Donea Lee said...

This is great advice. You really just need to pull from all personal experiences, observations, emotions, motivations, memories and then spice your character up with your own brand of creativity and fiction. I'd love to create a character that resonates with a widely diverse audience and is remembered for years and years to come. :)

Paula Martin said...

My characters come to life as I write them. I don't pre-determine their characteristics, I wait for them to show me as I get to know them.
http://paulamartinpotpourri.blogspot.com

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

Nice post and good advice.

Paula: I'm a lot like you. My characters show me.

TL Conway said...

Great tips but more importantly, what a wonderful blog! I'm so glad I found this/you through the A-Z challenge.

Bookmarking so I can come back and read more.

As for Engaging with my characters, I tried to do a "20 questions" with my mc and it felt uncomfortable. As a result, he's still pretty flat. I need to make him bigger or more lifelike. Time to give him some quirks!

http://tlconwaywriteshere.blogspot.com/

Dani said...

Come guest post about YA at http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com - we'll connect somewhere about it!

A-Z Fool
Blog Book Tours Blog

Michael Offutt said...

If you made "Z" into one of sixtuplets that would both make it interesting because she had five other clones and make it possible for you to say "Zzzzzz..."

Kerri Cuev said...

Good tips! I make sure I know my characters internal/external struggles before I write. :)

Z is sounding pretty good!

Kris Kaumeyer said...

I haven't quite written enough to dive so deep into a character. I'm on my way, though, and it's building in the back of my mind. Thanks for the advice!

L'Aussie said...

Hi Rach will have to come back to digest this when I'm not in a rush. We haven't hooked up yet. I'm pleased with how my travel posts are going. I see a few people are starting to drop out of the challenge. Looks like a marathon.

Denise<3

L'Aussie Travel A - Z Challenge Posts E for Eire, F for ?

Jeanne said...

Love this. It has some great tips in it. One of my favorite things to do is eavesdrop on conversations, at school, at airports and take notes on what I hear. In exact words. It gives me a flow of dialogue for certain character types. Phrases get me all excited. I keep a phrase book of wonky phrases that just crack me up.

K.V. Briar said...

Great post :) I've been thinking a lot about creating a believable character from page one and this totally helps! Thanks for the words of widsom!

Laura M. Campbell said...

Great advice. I thought about the fear of turtles, chelonaphobia. Nothing came to mind why one would fear them. I can say "sea turtle" in sign language. I'm still working on creating 3 dimensional characters.

Alleged Author said...

Lovely post! I'm working on creating characters that have certain foibles instead of being two-dimensional.

The Blogger Girlz said...

Great advise, getting to know my characters is my favorite part of the writing process.
- Aaron

Madeline Bartos said...

My character's pasts almost always influence their present behavior, along with relationships. Awesome post, Rach!

J.L. Campbell said...

An interesting scenario is the first thing that comes to me and then I find out how the character comes to be in that situation and from there I know who he/she is and what in their personality drove them to the point in their story where I first meet them.

Paul Joseph said...

I'm a bit extreme. I schedule a weekend and cut myself off from the world, allowing myself to experience life as my character. I do not interact with people my character doesn't know, which means I basically spend the time in solitude since those he/she knows are not real.

During that time, I listen to songs they would have on their playlist. I eat their favorite foods, watch their favorite movies, and even do homework they would have to do. It's not that bad, unless a character is taking chemistry!

And of course, I stay off facebook, twitter, and blogs during that time. That's the hardest part!

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