Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book's about them.
December 2014 Archives
Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book's about them.
Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
Rooftoppers (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013) by Katherine Rundell is a very fun read, although twelve-year-old Sophie has a very big problem. The National Childcare Agency says Charles, the bachelor who rescued her from the sea when she was one and floating in a cello case, can't be allowed to keep raising her. What will Sophie do without her beloved Charles? The two escape to Paris to search for her Sophie's long lost mother. On this adventure, when Sophie goes on the roof of her hotel, she makes some unusual friends.
A mix of historical and fantasy, the book is winning awards. Rooftoppers is the winner of the 2014 Blue Peter Book Award and the 2014 Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2014 CILIP Carnegie Medal.
Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.
picture courtesy of Taylor Schlades on morguefile.com
There's no magic answer to how many characters you should have in your story, especially if you are writing a novel. But overwhelming readers with the number of characters in a story is not good.
Sometimes the author shares a list of who is in the room--almost like calling roll in a classroom. Does a kid in a classroom care equally about everyone in the room? No. Neither does a reader.
Older students who have different classmates in every class may not even know all their names. They may think of someone as the tall girl or the annoying guy. It's okay to have nameless walk-on characters in a novel, too.
Sometimes when reading, I can't keep straight who is who in the cast of characters, which means there are not enough identifying characteristics of these people for me to keep them straight in my head. Or sometimes, it's too long between when they were last mentioned and I've forgotten who they are.
So what's a writer to do?
First, know every character in your story. If you don't know anything about someone besides his/her name and possibly gender, how can the reader? What does your main character, usually your viewpoint character, think of this person? Is he a help or hindrance to the main character? Is she a friend or acquaintance or chance met person? Is he important to the plot? How does she change or influence the main character?
Second, learn about the purposes of characters in novels. If two characters serve the same purpose, are both needed? Perhaps not. But how do we determine that?
I realized I was doing this more by "feel," than by logic or analysis. Therefore, I had to do research. Look at the great collection of articles I found!
This article is clear about the types of characters in a novel:
How Many Characters Should You Include in Your Story? by K.M. Weiland @kmweiland
I love the chart example with the characters in this article and plan to try it myself.
How many characters should a novel have? by Robert Wood
Like many things it's often hard to see in your own writing if you have too many characters. This is where your critique group or beta readers come in--they can point out where they are confused, or ask what happened to character D who disappeared from a scene, or even suggest how two characters are serving the same purpose.
Ice Dogs (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2014) by Terry Lynn Johnson puts you right there with 14-year-old dogsledder Victoria Secord and her team of dogs. You'll feel cold and hungry with her and her companion in this realistic story of how easy it is to be in danger in winter in the Alaskan bush. And, you'll find yourself worrying about several of the dogs as well as the two teens. The book makes me think of Gary Paulsen's survival stories, except this time with a girl main character!
Look at all the recognition this books is garnering:
- A Junior Library Guild Selection
- American Booksellers Association (ABA) Best Children's Books of 2014
- A Scholastic Book Fairs Selection 2014
- Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Books for Kids 2014
Ms. Johnson was a musher herself, so knows what life is like with sled dogs. Plus, she's still involved in outdoor adventures and you can read about them on her blog. Read more about Terry on her website.
Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
Badger Knight (Scholastic Press, 2014) by Kathryn Erskin may be historical since it is sent in England 1346, but it definitely isn't boring. I found the book hard to put down as I experienced life with the main character.
13-year-old Adrian isn't content to be small and sickly--he's going to be an archer. And help in the war against the Scots, or at least become an apprentice bowyer to his father. But no one--not his father or his friend Hugh and especially Good Aunt--think he's much use beyond collecting goose feathers to fletch arrows. The village bullies call him Badger since he puts dirt under his eyes to dim the brightness of his white face when shooting arrows. Adrian claims the name Badger himself when he goes to help his friend Hugh in the war.
This book is a 2014 Junior Library Guild Selection--you won't want to miss reading it! And isn't the cover gorgeous?
Adrian isn't the only traveler--so's Kathryn. See her bio!
I have a review of another of Kathryn's books here: Mockingbird.
The Rithmatist (Dragonsteel Entertainment/Tor, 2013) by Brandon Sanderson was one of those lucky finds off the library shelf. It has an interesting premise and surprising plot twists. Aimed at the YA market, as the main character is 16, it's definitely appropriate for upper middle grade readers who like Harry Potter.
Rithmatists--those who can make chalk drawings come to life to fight the wild chalklings in far off Nebrask--are set apart in school society. Poor scholarship student Joel desperately wishes he could become a Rithmatist even though he wasn't chosen. When Rithmatist students start disappearing from Armedius Academy, Joel manages to get himself assigned as an assistant to the professor who is investigating the disappearances, but doesn't realize how dangerous that will be.
Fascinating Illustrations of chalklings and the rithmatists defenses are done by Ben McSweeney.
This is the first book in a series. Go here to read an interview of Brandon about this book.
The author has written both children and adults series. Of those, I've read and enjoyed Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (Scholastic, 2007)--the first of his middle grade series. Doesn't the title just make you want to read it? See more on his website.
Of interest, too, is Sanderson's 3 laws of magic and links to 14 University Lectures by Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy on this page of writing advice.
image courtesy of veggiegretz on morguefile.com
Stuck on your current WIP? Here are some things I do, plus exercises I've learned from other people.
If I'm not feeling my character for the current scene, I go back some pages and reread what I've already written to get the feel of his or her life.
I'm not an outliner, but I know my main character's problem well and have an idea of how the problem might be solved. The stories don't always end how I think they will--I believe that is true for outliners, too. In one work in progress...the kid thinks he is responsible for his mother's death. At the end, he will realize he was not in control of whether she lived or died. He also will resolve (in his heart) the issue of having disappointed her the day she died. I don't know exactly how it is all going to happen, but I keep putting him in situations where he has to face what he's done, face his grief, his regrets.
Talk to your character. In a workshop at Oregon's SCBWI conference in 2013, Agent Trish Lawrence (EMLA) shared about "nailing your teen in the corner" and finding out what's going on under the surface. Ask questions on paper and record her answers. Ask "why" questions. Go to the dark places. Try to discover core truths and inner values.
Do research about your setting or your character's hobby or interests, or problem. In a talk at the 2014 New York SCBWI Conference, author Elizabeth Wein said that uncovering details often provides inspiration. Read her guest post on Authority and Authenticity. Author/illustrator Judy Schachner shared something similar at the 2014 LA conference when she showed us how she uses a journal/scrapbook to paste in pictures and quotes and ideas for her picture book character. As an illustrator as well as a writer, she also draws sketches of her character and tries things out with him.
Go some place different (anywhere, e.g. a doctor's office, a park, a store, a restaurant) and soak in the environs, then put your main character there and just start writing about him or her being there. Ask yourself, "What would he be thinking?" etc. Don't worry about your plot, etc. Just see what comes out. Several of us got things that may go into WIPs out of this exercise from a talk by author Elizabeth C. Bunce at a Kansas SCBWI workshop.
Work on another project and let this one simmer until it is bubbling to come out of you... Since I usually have a number of projects I want to work on, this works well for me.
Keep showing up to write. "Good ideas come when we show up," author Kate Messner said.* Kate has more writing tips on her blog.
Check for action in your story, especially if a middle grade novel. Editor Nancy Siscoe (Knopf) said, "Action is always better than inaction."* She added that nothing is worse than characters who never do anything.
Be courageous. Keep trying new things. While speaking on courage to write great picture books, Editor Jeannette Larson* reminded us to "do things that might scare you" and to be flexible.
At the fall 2013 SCBWI Oregon retreat, Deb Lund challenged us to "Mine Your Memories"--especially those yucky ones! What hurt you? What scared you? What secrets did you have?
Sometimes writing the next scene just doesn't seem possible. Write a later scene in the story and worry about how to connect them later.
Maybe you're worried too much about length. Don't worry about how long or short it is; just work on what happens next.
Ask yourself questions about your main character's problem. What's stopping him from reaching his goal? Or arriving at a solution? How can you make it worse before it gets better? How can you raise the stakes? Will she get what she wants? Once at a writer's event, I heard someone say "push the main character off the cliff and see what she does." ;-)
What do YOU do when you are stuck?
*at the 2014 New York SCBWI Conference
I often carry the germ of a story with me for years before I sit down to actually write it.