Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Countdown to NaNoWriMo Day Four: Characterization

BREAKING NEWS: It's Thursday. There are now only four days of sanity October remaining. Before we continue with this post, I think we should do a quick exercise.

On the count of three, I want you to raise your arms and interlace your fingers behind your head. If you're sitting in a chair, I want you to lean back and relax your neck. Now take a very deep breath, close your eyes, and think of precisely NOTHING for ten seconds. Give yourself a moment to enjoy the calm. Maybe even spend a whole minute this way. Try not to think about the fact that in four days you won't have any minutes to spend in such a blissfully wasteful fashion.

Now then. If you've been following this train of blog posts (the most consecutive posts I've ever written in my life, by the way), then you have already brushed up on creativity and inspiration, YA fiction writing techniques, and point of view characters. (If not, you're probably desperately confused, and should click on this link.)

Regardless, I'm sure you're here because you heard that today's post was a recap of a workshop given by award-winning author Donna Jo Napoli (BREATH, THE WAGER) which was all about characterization in YA.

Tuck in.

Things to Know About a Character

o What is your character afraid of? If you know all about your character, they will act coherently through all the scenes.
o Reader wants a coherent personality, even though humans are not consistent and coherent people.

Family Relationships
o People are surrounded by other people, and that becomes a part of who you are.
o Offer information that hooks the reader to the MC’s family and surroundings

o Inspires the way a character responds to things
o Child should have a variety of temperaments. Kids go every different direction, but don’t use reality for a reason for something to happen in your story. We have to totally believe what happens in your story, therefore things that occur in fiction MUST HAPPEN. Nothing can be simply coincidence, or arbitrary, as in life.
o Give characters variety.

Physical Characteristics
o Kids always want to know this FIRST. Boy or girl? Tall or short? Heavy or skinny? Helps kids visualize.
o Nationality and language.
o Hair matters. It shows how you see yourself and affects the way others see you.
o Find out what is important to your character.
o It isn’t what YOU think is important to your character, it is what your character thinks is important.
o Physical characteristics that will change might actually be more of a hindrance.

o The older the character is, the more interests affect their friendships.
o You don’t have to do a lot with this, but the fact that it is there in the background helps enrich and define your character.

o Plays a major role in how the MC views the world. How they respond to situations, and see in the world is determined by what culture has taught them.
o WHEN and WHERE are very crucial to a story.
o If you’re creating a world, it must be MORE solid than a historical place in time. They physical laws must make sense—everything must work. (Just like the use of magic.)

o Kids want to know this as well. Not everyone develops at the same rate, and two kids at the same age might be entirely different, and at entirely different stages.
o Find out the curriculum of the age you are writing about.
o Gain the trust of your reader.
o Children may not have experience, but they have smarts.
o Make sure your reader can’t—with the same amount of information—work out something in the plot before the MC does. Unless you’re trying to make a point about that character.

Some other thoughts:
- Don’t let facts shackle your story. Truth is not equal to fact.
- You must ask yourself: Why do I want to write this story? That answer is the truth of your story.
- Children want to be caught up in the plot by the end of Page 1. Establish something that Is the Problem, Leads to the Problem, or Takes us Into the Problem. Editors and kids need a reason to turn to Page 2.
- Your story begins when your problem shows up. Whatever thing will cause that huge emotion is what you should begin with.

Any comments? What measures do you take to develop and get to know your characters before you start writing? I personally like to spend time filling out character worksheets. Here are some good ones, if you've never tried that approach: Jody Hedlund's Character Worksheet, Character Creation Sheet, Character Development Form.


  1. Hey there! I've been lurking for these posts and while I began following you here and on twitter, I've yet to comment.

    I've really enjoyed these posts. Thank you so much for sharing. While a lot of the information isn't exactly new, beginning each day reflecting on these points before writing has been extremely helpful.

    Happy Writing!

  2. Rachel, I'm glad you're lurking, and I'm glad you commented! It's always fun to find new writing friends.

    I'm glad you've liked the posts. I know what you mean--for me so many of the workshops at Chautauqua were just great reminders of what I should be doing. Sometimes the most important thing to do is to refresh and remind, not necessarily learn from scratch. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. :::wastes an hour at work filling out character worksheets:::

    :::is appalled that she used ::: to express an action:::

  4. :::laughs hysterically at said appalling action and uses it herself:::