Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Deeper Character Development: 5 Things to Know About Your Main Characters

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

Over the past few weeks, I've done a lot of problem solving and worldbuilding. I now feel much more knowledgeable about my storyworld. I now know why the three people groups have been at war since they came to this land. And I have a reason why the Aerials justify human slavery.

There is one more area I'd like to spend time on before I really start plotting out my story in detail. I'd like to do some deeper character development--at least on my two point of view characters: Drake and Kaitlyn.

I can start writing now. And in other books, I have started writing. If I want to get something down and out of my head, or I want to see if the idea has merit, I might write some chapters. Having a goal, motivation, and story conflict is enough to get things rolling, BUT . . . I can't get very far knowing only those things. I need to know who my character is if I'm going to write a believable character arc. I can't show my character growing if I don't know what's broken in him.

I've written twenty books, and I never used the same process more than once in how I came up with my plot or developed my characters. I'm always learning, so when I read a new craft book, I take bits and pieces from it and try to incorporate that into my ever-changing process.

With character development, you've all likely seen my gigantic character chart. And while I love that chart, it's very rare that I ever completely fill it in for anyone but my few main characters. And even then, sometimes I don't. Most of the things on my giant character chart don't matter to the heart of the story. A story is about a character who rises up to face a situation and comes out changed on the other side. What he drives, whether or not he has a cat, and his favorite breakfast cereal don't matter. It might be fun to know those things, but they don't drive the story.

I do, however, have a handful of things I must know about a character in order to "play them" in the book. I think of this in terms of method acting. I need to get to know these characters deeply, so that I can accurately portray them in the story. And since I can't literally sit down and interview them, I do so in my head.

The first thing I need to ask them is, "Who are you?" And I'm not looking for a long, drawn out answer. I'm looking for a very specific label. It's the same label I would use to describe my character in a logline pitch statement. I want my character to give me an adjective + a noun that describes who they believe they are. This will help me get to know my character and to grow them over the course of the story.

When talking about loglines, over and over I've used the two examples from JAWS and Miss Congeniality, respectively: landlubber sheriff and ugly-duckling (female) FBI agent. Both of these character descriptions are a great place to start because they show conflict in what I know the character is going to face in the story. In JAWS, the sheriff is going to have to go out in a boat to try and kill a giant shark. That's hard to do for anyone, but especially a man who is afraid of the ocean. And in Miss Congeniality, the fact that she is an ugly-duckling FBI agent isn't such a big deal, until she has to enter a beauty pageant. Now we have trouble.

I've been working on this for Onyx Eyes, and I have it all figured out for both Drake and Kaitlyn. I'm going to give it to you one step at a time. To start, here are the descriptions I've given them, then as you read the five things to know about your main character below, you'll see why I chose those descriptions. You don't have to come up with any of this in order. It actually helps me to start with the dark moment story, so I often don't have my character adjective and + noun until later.

Drake: I am an abandoned warrior

Kaitlyn: I'm an invisible daughter.

1. The dark moment story.
What is that character's dark moment story? This is something that happened to them long before the story starts, often in childhood. This event was so powerful, it branded a lie into the character's heart, and ever since that day, he has been a walking definition of that lie. Defined by it. You need to dig until you figure out what that story is. Not just "he was abused by his dad." You need a moment in time that could be watched on a film, complete with five senses details. Here are mine:

Drake: My father died when I was seven. He was a soldier and was fighting against the Aerials, who were trying to take control of some Grounder border villages. He and I were close. He taught me so many important things. I loved sparring with him with the wooden swords he made me. I still hear his voice sometimes, telling me not to drop my guard.

Anyway, he died in battle. A soldier came to the door and told my mother. I was sitting on the floor just inside the door, whittling a dragon from a piece of cedar. I saw the blood splattered on the soldier's clothes--I could smell it--and I wondered if that was my father's blood. To this day, the smell of blood makes me think of my father, of his bravery.

When the soldier left, my mother got angry. She started packing clothes and muttering about how she knew this would happen, how my dad had been a fool to fight an unwinnable battle. My mother finished packing the bag and carried it to the door. She looked down at me and said, "I'm leaving. You'll stay here. I have a man up in Novahorn who'll take me in, but he doesn't care for children." And then she left. The door closed behind her with a loud thump. I stared at it for a long while, then I finally got up and opened it. I saw her in the distance, walking away, bag in one hand. She didn't look back.

Kaitlyn- (Kaitlyn was tricky because she has two families. So I decided to use the family she was born into [spoilers!] because that would have been the family she lived in during her formative years.)

I came from a really large family with seven children. I was child number five in the long line. My older brothers were already married and had children of their own, and it was my job to cook all the meals and to look after my little sisters and my nieces and nephews. I love my family, but I often felt more like a mom than a child. And it was really hard to get any attention from my parents. Father worked as a soldier, and mother was a maid in the castle. I did one thing for myself back then. I loved to bake. So when the marketplace had a baking contest, I entered my best cuskynoles, which are bite-sized tarts filled with apples, pears, figs, and raisins. My brother always said I made the best cuskynoles--even better than his wife's, so I wasn't terribly surprised when they made the top five. My entire family was summoned to the marketplace the next day, where judges would taste the top entries in each category and choose winners.

I told my family about it, and my parents both promised to be there. The next day, I arranged for our neighbor to come over and watch the children so I could go to the market. I won first place. But my parents never arrived. No one from my family came. That night at home, I made roasted chicken with potatoes and carrots with my award-winning cuskynoles for dessert. Everyone ate with no mention of how the judging had gone. I was working up the courage to share when my elder sister announced she was getting married. The whole house erupted in celebration, and I never got a chance to tell anyone I had won or show them my ribbon. I cleared the table and did the dishes, feeling completely forgotten. I never made cuskynoles again. And I hate roasted chicken.

2. What lie does your character believe about himself as a result of that dark moment story?

Drake: I am worthless. No one wants me around.

Kaitlyn: I'm invisible. Nobody sees me. Everyone else is more important that I am. There must be something wrong with me.

3. What wound did your character suffer from that event?

Drake: His wound was being abandoned and the shame of being unwanted by his own mother.

Kaitlyn: Her wound is being forgotten and the immense disappointment that came with it.  

4. What flaw came out of this? How does your character behave in order to protect himself from suffering another similar wound and being hurt again?

Drake: He is distant from people. A loner. Sometimes considered cold. Very independent. He finds it difficult to develop close relationships with people and has never had a close friendship.

Kaitlyn: She doesn't rely on others. People can't be trusted. She is an over-achiever, a hard worker, and overly self-critical. She has a hard time making decisions, and is unable to be spontaneous because she doesn't want to risk future disappointments.

5. What is your character's greatest fear? 
Hint: It should be related to his dark moment story manifesting again his his life. And it should manifest again, in the black moment or disaster part of your three-act-structure.

Drake: His greatest fear is that he is unlovable. That he might love someone and be rejected.

Kaitlyn: Her greatest fear is that she is worthless and doesn't matter in this world. That she could vanish and no one would ever miss her.

Okay, so fast-forward to the present...

What is their greatest dream? Knowing all those things about your character's past will help you discover what your character wants and why? This is not a plot question, but an internal one. This is something deep inside your character that propels him through the story.

Drake wants to be part of a family.

Kaitlyn wants a deep and meaningful friendship with someone who sees her.

And since this series will have a romantic subplot, it's important that Drake and Kaitlyn will help each other overcome their lies and wounds and achieve their greatest dreams. They are a good fit because if Drake takes the risk to love someone and is loved in return, he will be fiercely loyal because such a relationship will be priceless to him. That's the kind of devotion Kaitlyn needs to achieve her greatest dream.

And Drake's greatest dream is that he would be part of a family, and while Kaitlyn was hurt by her family, she still loves them. And they are a big, wild, crazy family that will accept Drake as one of them, even if they don't give him a lot of attention. That's the kind of family Drake has always wanted.

One more thing to mention. Once you have all this figured out, you need to give your character some competing goals. I'm currently working on my sixth and (final!) Mission League book. And Spencer is going to reach a place where his two more important goals conflict (stopping the bad guys OR signing a contract to play college basketball at a D1 school), and he'll be forced to choose between them. What he chooses could very well change his life, but since it's at the end of the story, he will now be equipped to make that choice (the right choice), when at the start of book one, he was far too immature to even think about such a selfless act.

So here are some competing goals for Drake and Kaitlyn. If I plot (and write) my story well, hopefully they will both be forced to choose between these goals in the story. They might choose wrong at first, but by the end of the story, they should have grown enough to sacrifice something important to do the right thing. These goals might not mean much to you, but they are events in the story that I will work hard to make sure my characters will have to choose between at some point.

Drake: Find the missing princess. Stop the Aerial slave trade. Help Kaitlyn find her missing brother.

Kaitlyn: Find her missing brother. Find out who she is. Rescue Drake from prison.

Can you answer the following about your characters?

Who are you? (Give a specific adjective + noun.)

1. What is your dark moment story?
2. What lie do you believe because of that event?
3. What wound did you suffer as a result of that event?
4. What flaw did you develop from that wound?
5. What is your greatest fear?

Because of all that, what do you want most in life?

What else do you want (that will compete with what you want most in life)?

Share your answers in the comments!

Monday, February 19, 2018

8 Keys To Opening Your Story The Right Way

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

So far in my thread of the Grow An Author series, I've talked a lot about getting ready to write. Here is a list of my posts so far, in case you need to catch up:

From Story Spark to Story Blurb
How To Effectively and Efficiently Do Research
Ideas for How To Organize Your Research Notes
The Three Things You Need To Answer About Your Main Character

Even with all this work, I'm still not ready to dive full-on into my first draft. There's more planning to be done. But I've learned the hard way that I'm not a very good planner unless I have written a few chapters. I don't really understand why that is, but it's pretty common among novelists.

How do you know where to start your story? Writers ask this a lot, and I have a not-so-helpful answer that I will follow up with a more details answer.

The not helpful answer: For me, it's a gut thing.

We all have parts of writing that come more naturally to us than others, and for me, my instincts with where to begin my story nearly always serve me well. I know lots of other writers who have to "write their way" to their beginning, who almost always scrap the first few chapters they write, so if that's you, don't despair.

But that it's "a gut thing" isn't terribly helpful, is it? So here are eight elements that I feel are key to creating a compelling story opening.

Start with your main character

It's almost always a good idea to begin with your main character. This is likely why the reader has picked up your book. To read about this character and their story, so it usually works best to begin with them. 

You can probably name books that you know and love that don't do this. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the first one that pops to mind for me. So while I think it can work to ignore this bit of advice, I think most stories are served best by beginning with the main character.

Start with your main character doing something interesting and pertinent

You have maybe heard the writing advice to start "in media res" or in the middle of action. I do agree with this, though I do wish whoever first said it would have added to start with action, "that matters."

For example in The Hunger Games, we begin with Katniss sneaking out to go hunting, which is both interesting and something that's important later in the story.

Skip the "here's what you've missed" info-dumpy opening

Just don't do it.

There aren't many things that I'll come right out and say, "Never do this," but this is one. Yes, I know you see bestselling authors do this. I don't know why their editors are okay with it, I really don't. I'm actually reading a book right now from an author who I love, but the first TWO CHAPTERS are all backstory. I kept thinking things like, "If this wasn't this particular author, I would have already closed this book." And, "When does the story actually start?"

I know it's easy to believe that if the reader doesn't know all these things that happened in the main character's past, or in your fantasy storyworld's history, they won't be able to adequately appreciate or understand what's going on. But your job in the first chapter is to show the reader why they should be intrigued by this character, not to tell them every single thing they need to know.

It's like when you meet someone for the first time, and you have a bit of a crush on them. You're intrigued by them. You want to know more. You don't need to know everything about themoften it's better if you don'tand you still feel that this is a person you want to spend more time with. 

That is what you're trying to create for you reader, and I have yet to read an info dump opening that does this.

Start with action that says something about who the main character is, and why we should care about them.

Going back to The Hunger Games, the reason that opening scene works so well is that Katniss isn't just doing something interesting and intriguing. What she's doing also says something about who she is. She's a provider. She's responsible. She takes care of her own. These are traits of hers that make us care about her, and make us want to find out what happens next.

Start in the character's normal world.

It's helpful for readers to see what kind of life this character is used to, but we don't need very much, and it doesn't have to be a completely normal day either. In The Hunger Games, it's the Reaping day. We see just a glimpse of what Katniss's everyday existence is like, and that's enough.

In Cars we see Lightning McQueen tearing it up on the race track and nearly-winning with no help from anyone else. That's his normal world.

In Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Harry is having a terrible birthday at the Dursleys', like always. 

Sometimes what's helpful for me is to consider how I can portray a normal day, but with a twist. For Katniss, it's an ordinary day, except she knows the reaping is coming. For Lightning McQueen, it's another race, only this time it's a tie. And for Harry Potter, he's used to terrible birthdays, but on this one, Dobby the house elf shows up.

Start with hints of what they want, what they need, and the barrier between

This, of course, doesn't mean stating, "Harry had been neglected all his life, and what he wanted more than anything was to belong somewhere." This means finding a clever way to show the audience what the character lacks. (And it's not always what the character thinks they lack.)

Lightning McQueen wants to win the Piston Cup so he can have the best racing sponsor. What he really needs is friends and people who love him just as he is. The barrier keeping Lightning from this is his own ego. We see all of this in the first few minutes of the movie.

Consider your tone

Another danger with blindly following the "start with action" advice is that writers sometimes will pick an interesting, action-filled, whizbang of an opening ... that doesn't match the tone of the rest of the novel. A cozy mystery doesn't open the same way as a historical romance. Chapter one of a middle grade adventure novel doesn't sound like epic fantasy.

If you're already following the above advice, having a mismatched opening isn't very likely to happen to you, but it's something to be on the lookout for if you're trying to amp up the action in the beginning.

Create questions

More than anywhere else in the novel, in your first pages you want to create questions in the reader's mind. Why did this character wake up scared? Why is she sneaking out? What is she afraid of? What's so important that she's risking getting into trouble? These are a few of the questions that I raised when I wrote the opening of Within These Lines, and they were all answered within a few paragraphs. You're not trying to frustrate your reader by never answering any questions. You're just trying to evoke their curiosity.

Here are the first few hundred words of Within These Lines. After, I'll give a brief summary of how I think this fits the above criteria. (Besides my editor, you guys are the first to read any of it!)

Chapter One: Evalina
Saturday, March 21st, 1942
3 months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor
San Francisco, California

When I jolt awake, the familiar fear smothers my early morning thoughts and thrums through my veins. I gasp for breath, as if there’s a shortage of oxygen, until I convince my rhythm to slow.

No light comes into my room—too early—but I draw back a panel of my gingham curtains and peek outside anyway. Just to reassure myself that it’s all still there—my narrow street, the houses of my neighbors, my entire world.

And there it is, the sound that roused me from my fearful slumber. The faint squeak of bicycle pedals as the paperboy pushes himself up our steep hill. When I look closely at the front door of the house across the street, I spot the newspaper lying across the front step like a welcome mat. 

The planks of my wooden floor creak as I slip out my door, past Mama and Daddy’s quiet bedroom, down the narrow, steep staircase, and out the front door. Even in the dim lighting of the streetlamp, the bold headline of the San Francisco News reaches up and grabs at my heart:


No, no, no my heart pounds as I reach for the newspaper.

How can you know something is coming, spend every waking moment with it gnawing at you, and still feel a jab of shock when you see it begin?

I devour the article that details how over sixty Japanese Americans living in Los Angeles have voluntarily gone to Manzanar—a place in southern California I had never heard of until earlier this month—to prepare to receive new residents.


I jump at Mama’s groggy voice. “Hi. I didn’t mean to wake you. I just couldn’t sleep.”

With her puffy eyes, Mama looks at the newspaper in my hand. Her mouth is set in a grim line. “This obsession is not healthy, Evalina. I know you’re worried, but we have nothing to fear. I don’t know what it will take for you to believe that.”

“Mama, they’re going to make all the Japanese go.” My voice cracks. “Even the ones who were born here. Like the Hamasakis’s children.”


I swallow. I shouldn’t have mentioned them by name. “One of our produce suppliers at Alessandro’s.”

“Oh. Yes, of course.” Mama stifles a yawn, seeming unaware of how far I tipped my cards. “You’re safe, honey. I know sometimes those articles make it sound like Italians are going to be rounded up too, but we’re not.”

“If the government was being fair, we’d be forced to go too. Especially a family like ours—”

“But we’re not. Stop looking for trouble, and come inside before somebody sees you looking indecent.”

I’m wearing my favorite pajamas, which have long pants and long sleeves, but Mama hates that I bought them in the men’s department. I shuffle back inside the house, and Mama soundlessly closes the door.

She scowls at me in the gray light of the entryway. “I’m going back to bed. I’m tired of these conversations, Evalina. I’m tired of waking up to you crying. Or hearing from your friends that you’re distracted and preoccupied by the news. This is not normal behavior for a girl your age.”

“Our country is at war.” I force my voice to be soft. “What am I supposed to act like?”

Mama’s mouth opens. I’m wearing away the thread of patience she woke up with—I can see it in her eyes—but I don’t know how to lie about this. Why, I’m not sure, because I’m certainly lying about plenty of other things.

“Evalina…” Mama takes several thoughtful breaths before saying. “I’m going back to bed. You do the same.”

Start with your main character: Done. Again, there are times when I've seen writers start with not-the-main character and it works fine, but I think those are exceptions.

Start with your main character doing something interesting and pertinent: Evalina is sneaking out of the house to get the morning paper, which is interesting behavior for a teenage girl, and directly relates to the main plot.

Skip the "here's what you've missed" info-dumpy opening: Done. Other than when I spell out when and where we are in the chapter header, which is customary for historical fiction, the reader hits the ground running with minimal information.

Start with action that says something about who they are, and why we should care about them: From this scene, we know that Evalina cares deeply about something that is happening around her, but not really to her. Anytime you can show a main character caring about something that's bigger than them, that's attractive to readers.

Start in their normal world: I considered starting before the bombing, which would really be Evalina's true normal world, but when I learned the timing of when the Japanese Americans were evacuated, I decided after would serve the story better.

Start with hints of what they want, what they need, and the barrier between: This is just the first 600 words so you don't get the full picture, but we see what's pressing on Evalina's heart, and you even get a hint of why this issue matters to her so much when she mentions the Hamasaki family by name to her mother. The barrier that's implied is that these are government decisions, and Evalina is a teenage girl with no power of her own.

Consider your tone: I wanted my opening to show the panic and uncertainty that saturated this time in history. That's why I have Evalina jolting awake from a dream about a bomb, and sneaking out of bed to find out what new, scary things have happened in the world.

Create questions: Some of the questions the scene evokes get answered very quickly. (Why is she sneaking downstairs? Oh, to read the newspaper.) Other questions are raised but not answered, like why is Evalina nervous that she "tipped her hand" by bringing up the Hamasakis? Or what else is she lying about?

Take a look at the openings of your stories. Do you feel like they're doing a good job of setting up the story you want to tell?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Time Out: Letting First Thoughts Settle Into Place

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

As a routine part of my writing process I give myself days at a time to do nothing but think. Well, not nothing. I'm usually scrubbing the bathroom, or preparing a Sunday school lesson, driving my kids around town, or putting together a conference talk. Sometimes I'm actually out in nature, hiking a mountain or splashing in the ocean. Those are the glorious days, but the truth is, so long as I make it a priority to come back to my manuscript sooner rather than later, these thinking days are incredibly valuable and, in truth, necessary.

If you've been following my writing process on Fridays, you'll know that at this point I've committed to a story idea and I've begun the process of discovery writing the opening scenes. I have the beginnings of a protagonist and the problem she's working to solve. A cast of characters is starting to take shape around her and my storyworld is blurry but is slowly coming into focus.

I've noticed that I've started to contradict myself here and there within the manuscript. Some days my hero has two brothers and some days she has three. Some days her father has a beard and some days he's clean shaven. During my first writing session, I set the story in the springtime, but I've since decided that autumn makes way more sense. I have the frame work of a religious system in place and I'm trying to decide if I want to include magic or not.

What I need to do now is stop and give the story time to become more than just an idea. I need to walk away from the business of writing and let the story settle into place in my gut.

Ever cooked a tri-tip? You pull it off the grill and it smells amazing, but if you cut into it right away, the juices inside the meat spill out and you're left with a dry hunk of cow. What's needed is not more time on the grill or even another dose of marinade. What the meat needs is time. If you leave the tri-tip alone for just ten minutes, the juices will redistribute and every slice will be full of juicy yumminess.

That's what I'm trying to do here. I've done a little cooking and now I need to let my story rest. To let it breathe. To let all the juicy ideas I have racing through my head redistribute. I need them to settle into place. 

When a break like this is successful, I come back to the page excited because I have clarity. The influx of first thoughts that pummeled me during my early writing sessions have begun to settle into place.

I know how many brothers my hero needs and her father's appearance has started to solidify in my head. I'm more certain than ever that I should start my story in the autumn. Like magic, those springtime images of budding flowers and new grasses suddenly become mulch underfoot with orange and gold leaves blustering about on a warm fall breeze. 

Time away from the page allows the warring images inside my own self to adjust organically. As I settle in to write again, I'll go back through my first scenes and I'll tailor the words on the page to match the images I now have in my head. I'll likely come across other things that need to be stewed on, but since I'm back from my thinking break and ready to move forward, I'll just highlight those sections and push on. Remember, this is a first draft. I don't need to figure EVERYTHING out now. Just enough to keep me writing.

Do you routinely take timeouts during your writing process? What does that look like for you? Is it challenging when you come back to the page or do you find a renewed sense of energy?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Go Teen Writers Live Episode 8: Resubmitting after rejection, character creation, and Wattpad

Hey, it's Jill. I've been working diligently on too many things lately, which means I haven't made much progress overall in any one area. :-/  I'm recording audio books, building storyworld for Onyx Eyes, working on my classes for the Mount Hermon Teen Track, and trying to write my last Spencer book. All at once. I've always been more of a "one project at a time" girl, so this schedule has not been my favorite, nor does it enable me to be my most productive. But in everything there are seasons, and my life right now is no different. So I'm going to continue to peck away and see what I can accomplish. *fingers crossed*

Today, I'm excited to bring you our eighth installment of Go Teen Writers Live! In this video, we answered the following questions:

1) If you query an editor and they reject your manuscript, but you've made a lot of changes, is it okay to resubmit, or is that considered rude?

We talked about how it really depends on what kind of rejection you received, and that sometimes an agent or editor will invite you to resubmit. The one thing you should never do when offered a reason for rejection is to argue with them. Nothing good can come from that.

2) The next question we answered is about how to create characters "from scratch." 

This is a complicated question. For several entertaining minutes we struggled to explain how we come up with characters, and then we moved onto the third question, which was about Wattpad.

3) We were asked about Wattpad, and whether or not we think it's a good idea.

Stephanie talked about some authors she knows who were discovered by publishers on Wattpad, and how that's absolutely a thing. But she also talked about how that's really rare, and that's not really the best reason to use a site like Wattpad.

Hope you enjoy the video!

Please feel free to ask any follow-up questions in the comments below. And if you have questions you'd like to have answered on Go Teen Writers Live, email Stephanie at Stephanie(at)

Monday, February 12, 2018

The 3 Questions You Need to Answer About Your Main Character Before You Start Your Novel

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

I've always wanted there to beand have often attempted to createa step-by-step process for writing a novel. And while there are some things that happen in a clear, orderly fashion, many other pieces feel a bit like the chicken and the egg. 

My character forms my plot, but also my plot forms my character.

So even though I've chosen to talk first about my plot and my research, it's not like I cross those off a list before I get going on my characters. The creation process is all very entwined for me, so when I'm working on my blurb or research, I'm also thinking about and working on my characters.

For me, it isn't until I've written my first draft that I feel like I really know my characters. Before the first draft, it's like when there's a person in your life who you've talked to a time or two, but you've never had a shared experience. Yeah, you know them ... but after you go on that mission trip/play that season of volleyball/survive being lab partners, then you know them.

I've tried character interviews, figuring out their Meyer Briggs personality type, archetypes, but none of that has ever served me real well. If you feel like those tools are helpful to you, then stick with it.

The first thing I do, and that you probably do too whether you think about it or not, is mine the story idea for intrinsic character information.

For Within These Lines, there were a few things about my characters that were obvious from the concept of the story. One being that both my main characters, Evalina and Taichi, were the type of people who could be persuaded to break social customs. Since interracial marriage was illegal in California in 1942, obviously dating someone of a different race wouldn't be very popular either. But they haven't told their parents, so they're not rebelling for the sake of making a splash. To me, that suggested that they loved and valued their parents and their opinions.

So just what little I knew about the story has already informed the characters. Before I begin writing or creating a synopsis in earnest, however, I do have three questions that I answer for all point of view characters. I didn't come up with these on my own, I should say. These are craft questions that are so widely taught, I wouldn't even know who to give credit to.

What does my character want? 

What are they trying to accomplish during the story? If the goal isn't strong enough, your reader is going to think, "Why don't they just not do this?"

If the authors hadn't done their job in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pride and Prejudice, or the movie Tangled, you would think, "Why should Harry Potter look for horcruxes, or Lizzy Bennett wait for true love, or Rapunzel risk leaving her tower?" But you don't because from the beginning of these stories, you know what the main character's goal is, and why.

Because my two main characters, Evalina and Taichi, want a happily ever after with each other, I knew in those early chapters my job was to show the reader how good they are when they're together, and how unfair it is for them to be kept apart.

What lie do they believe, and why do they believe it?

Before the opening of my stories (and most modern stories), my character believes something untrue about his or herself, or the world around them.

The lie is one of the hardest things for me to identify before I write the story, and it sometimes morphs a bit for me as I write the first draft. (Which is frustrating because that inevitably means more work in rewrites.)

When you're trying to identify the lie, you want something that feeds into the overall message of your story ... which means you need to have an idea of what you're trying to say with the whole thing. For Within These Lines, I knew I had a lot of anger over the way the Japanese Americans were treated, a lot of admiration for how submissive and gracious they were through the whole ordeal, and a ton of frustration with how few people advocated for them outside the fences. I didn't really know what my theme would be yet, but I knew those were all topics I wanted to touch on.

Taichi's lie came to me much easier than Evalina's. Taichi's lie is, "If I just do what I'm told, everything will be fine." I knew that lie would feed Taichi's decisions about how to handle cruel treatment from guards and poor living conditions.

Evalina's lie started out as something different, but eventually became, "I'm just a teenage girl." Evalina would lean on her low place in society as an excuse to not speak louder, to not be angrier, to not be more active. She's just one person. What's she supposed to do?

Your characters also need a reason to believe what they believe. Sometimes this is called "an origin scene." For Taichi, I decided he has an older sister who has been very rebellious and gotten into a lot of trouble. From watching her, he learned how to stay out of trouble by obeying. With Evalina, it was a bit murkier to come up with a defining moment of when the lie took hold. I think anyone who has gone through childhood understands that most of the time you feel like a second class citizen who will only really matter once you're an adult.

The best lies for your characters will have truth in them as well. Take Taichi's lie as an example. It's true that if you obey the authorities in your life, things tend to go your way. But what about when the authorities are morally wrong? Or it's true that Evalina is a teenage girl and doesn't have much (or any) clout to her name. But that's not a good enough reason to stay quiet in the face of injustice.

What truth do they need that they'll discover over the course of the story?

Your main character believes they are working toward something specific (and they are) but they also need to be moving steadily toward learning the truth that will defeat their lie. 

Evalina, I knew, would have to learn how to be bold and use her own voice even in the face of oppression from someone who "ranked higher" in society. Taichi would need to learn that there's a time and place to question authority.

Once I've answered these three questionswhich sometimes happens easily and other times takes trying and trying again to land on the best optionit's amazing how much of the plot starts to take shape in my mind. More on that next week!

Do you do very much to get to know your character before starting your first draft? What tools work for you? What have you tried that hasn't worked?