Developing Characters For My Teen Novels, by Kate Forsyth
One of the most mysterious aspects of a writer’s craft is building characters. I get asked all the time how I do it.
I usually try and explain that I don’t so much invent the characters in the book as discover them. It’s a process of getting to know them. I usually begin with ‘seeing’ them in my mind’s eye. More often than not I see them very clearly right away but sometimes their face and form may be a little shadowy. If so, I just keep on looking and wondering and imagining until I see them clearly.
Emilia and Luka, the 13 year old protagonists of The Gypsy Crown came dancing and singing and laughing into my imagination as if they had always existed.
The face of Hannah, the heroine of The Puzzle Ring was also very vivid in my mind’s eye right from the very beginning.
I’ve had to spend a little bit more time with other characters. This will only usually take me a day or two though. I have a very visual imagination and so for some reason I find this a very easy and intuitive process.
Once I begin to see them clearly I give them a name. Finding the right name might take weeks. I’ll pore over baby name books and Google keywords like ‘medieval Welsh girl’s names’. I write up lists of names and their meanings and play with them to see how they fit.
One of the first inspirations for Luka and Emilia, the protagonists of The Gypsy Crown, came from my desire to write a book that both my son Ben and my niece Emily could read. They were cousins, three weeks apart in age, and loved to invent games inspired by the books they read. So I made Luka and Emilia cousins as close as twins as well, and turned Emily’s name into the gypsy-like name of Emilia. But there was not much I could do with Ben – it was resolutely un-gypsy-like. So I borrowed the name of the son of one of my favourite Australian fantasy writers, Kim Wilkins. Her son’s name is Luca – I simply changed the spelling of it a little. I then went on and named many of the minor characters after the children of Australian fantasy writers. Readers in the know can play a game of spot the name.
Hannah in The Puzzle Ring was Anna for a while – I knew I needed a palindromic name but Anna didn’t seem quite right, while Hannah definitely was. It took me ages to find the name of the boy who becomes her best friend. At last I settled on Donovan which means ‘dark prince’.
Once my characters are named, I begin to write character sketches for them. I think about when their birthdays might be, what their childhoods might have been like, what they want out of life, what they fear the most and so on. I think about their greatest strengths and weaknesses. Are they hot-tempered, impulsive, pig-headed or shy? What do they like to eat, wear and read? I gradually begin to know them as people. I’ll begin to write my story, listening all the time for their voices. The writing is much easier once I know how they sound. Sometimes I feel as if the book nearly writes itself.
Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au
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