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Using Character Handles In My Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

In my first teen novel, The Winter Prince, there are four secondary characters who turn up in a pack.  They’re brothers, they’re all teens, and they all have similar names (they are, in fact, the princes of Orkney from Arthurian legend, traditionally named Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth).  When a friend of mine read an early draft of The Winter Prince he couldn’t tell any of them apart.

Here’s what he advised me:  ‘A supporting character needs a handle.’

‘A handle?  You mean like a nickname?’

‘No.  I mean like a door handle.  Or a pot handle.  Something that the reader can grab.’

Ever since then, I’ve tried to do exactly that with minor characters.  I give them handles.  I give them some characteristic, twitch or quirk designed to jolt the reader into recognition: ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy with the thick glasses/the wandering hands/the car that’s always breaking down/the missing fingers…’ and those are just the ones from Code Name Verity!  After my friend gave me this advice, I gave my character Agravaine my very first conscious handle.  He wears his hair in a long copper-coloured plait of which he is very vain.

Handles shouldn’t be gratuitous.  Agravaine’s plait, though I included it on purpose to make him a little different from the rest of his red-haired brothers, is important because it works symbolically to show how like his mother he is – she, too, has long red hair and is vain.  It also shows Agravaine’s bond to his mother.  Similarly, the handles for the minor characters in Code Name Verity all contribute to the plot in some way.

The magic thing about handles is that they help the writer as well as the reader.  Once you’ve given someone an interesting characteristic, the writing starts to generate itself around that characteristic.  The guy with the thick glasses suddenly has a prop that can be used in a number of different ways – sometimes he seems to be disguised, sometimes he seems to be hiding, sometimes he can take the glasses off and wipe his eyes and I, as the author, can use this prop to suggest his emotional state without having to speculate about what he’s thinking.

Handles aren’t just relevant to characters.  Giving your settings specific, detailed characteristics helps to make them come alive, too.  Not just the smell of flowers, but the smell of lilacs.  Not just a fire in a fireplace, but a coal fire in an iron grate.  Not just a small dog but a wire-haired terrier.  Specific details don’t just make your story more interesting to read: they make it realistic and evocative.  These small nuanced touches can be particularly important in historical fiction or fantasy, where it can be tempting to generalize when you don’t know or can’t visualize specifics.

What are your characters eating around their campfire?  Have they got a coffee pot?  Is the coffee burning?  What does it smell like?  When someone picks it up, is the handle hot?

It’s worth a few burnt fingers to grab that handle.

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Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     The Dog in the WoodRaven SpeakDeadly Little Games

Writing Teen Novels
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Plotting A Novel Versus Winging It, by Diane Lee Wilson

I began my first novel not really knowing what I was doing. In a burst of inspiration, I scribbled a few opening sentences on a piece of paper and gradually turned that into a short first chapter. Then I started a second chapter. And it went on from there. Whenever I finished a chapter I would ask myself: What has to happen next? I was never quite sure. I wanted to move the story along and I had a vague idea where I wanted the story to end up, but the middle was unknown territory.

Did that work? Yes, I’m happy to say that it did. With the help of my agent I sold that novel to a respected publishing house. Soon after, about the time I was doing my rewriting based on my newly assigned editor’s comments, I came across a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler. In this book, Vogler mapped each stage of a well-constructed novel or film. Oh, no. What if I’d done it all wrong?

I read the book cover to cover and loved it, happy to find that I’d intuitively followed the basic structure for good storytelling. And I recommend this book to aspiring novelists. It shed new understanding on the roles played by archetypal characters and explained the different “acts” inherent in most stories. I also adopted a few tips for making future stories stronger.

But here’s where I slipped: When I began my second novel I didn’t follow my intuition. I used Vogler’s outline to create a “perfect” story arc. I sat on my living room floor and, with an idea in my head, filled out 3”x5” cards with sequential segments of the story. I then slavishly followed those cards to write my story. And when this novel was completed I felt it was somewhat lifeless. In my opinion, it lacked the spark that arises from seat-of-your-pants inspiration.

Each of my subsequent novels has been conceived and written like my first one. I’m aware of classic story structure and the archetypes that appear in most stories, but I rely more on my intuition to keep my reader turning the pages. At times, if I’m stuck in my progress, I might pick up The Writer’s Journey for a little inspiration. I’ll be reminded of the tension created when a hero fails a few times, or the suspense lent by a “shapeshifter” character. Then I’ll set the book down and return to my writing.

I’ve spoken to authors who have found success writing from a detailed outline but that doesn’t work for me. I simply begin each novel introducing a teen character with a problem. I know where he or she needs to end up; I just don’t know how that will happen. I also don’t know how much the character will change or develop over the course of the story – and that’s part of the fun of writing without a map: I wake up in the morning wondering what will happen in the story today!

So my words of advice would be: familiarize yourself with good storytelling, whether that’s through studying manuals or just reading the works of accomplished authors, but then sit down and tell your story YOUR way, the way you see it in your head. That’s when the magic happens.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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FirehorseRaven SpeakI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeBlack Storm Comin'     The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for WritersShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's Shadow

Writing Teen Novels
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