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Posts from the ‘Characters’ Category

Writing Sociopathic Characters, by April Henry

When you write mysteries and thrillers, chances are that you will someday write about a person who is a sociopath. In my upcoming book, The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die, one of the characters is a sociopath.

Even though I had written about them, it took me years to figure out that someone I knew was a sociopath. People will often hear sociopath or psychopath – the two terms are basically interchangeable – and think you must be talking about a serial killer. But no. Only a few are. Most are people you might work with, live next door to or be related to. For the most part, they are people who leave a trail of broken hearts, empty wallets and frustrated expectations in their wake.

In some ways, I’m like a sociopath. I was born with no real sense of direction. I can be facing the setting sun and still have no idea where west is. I routinely get lost. It can take years for me to grasp how one street relates to another.

Sociopaths are like that. Only instead of being born without a sense of direction, they seem to be born with an inability to value other people as real, vulnerable human beings.

Robert Hare, PhD, is a pioneer in criminal psychology, specifically the study of sociopaths. He’s come up with some traits common to most sociopaths.

Sociopathic traits

Sociopaths have superficial charm. They are smooth and engaging. That’s because they are not in the least shy or self-conscious. The woman I know comes across well – at first. She easily struck up conversations with strangers.

Sociopaths have a grandiose sense of self-worth. They’re opinionated and cocky. They are so sure of their self worth that at first you might be too. The woman I know was thinking she should become a TV broadcaster – despite lacking any training or experience in this highly competitive field.

Sociopaths have a need for stimulation. They get bored, they take chances, they like thrills. They have a hard time finishing what they start. They are impulsive. The woman I know sometimes hooked up with near strangers.

Sociopaths lie, con and manipulate. It ranges from being sly to being outright dishonest.

The woman I know is an excellent liar. Caught in a lie, she simply layers on two or three more.

Sociopaths don’t feel any guilt. The only feelings they have about their victims are disdain. They have a lack of feeling in general – cold and tactless. I once saw the woman I know laugh because she had made a stranger believe one of her lies to the point the stranger cried with pity for her imaginary fate.

Sociopaths have a parasitic lifestyle. They are good at getting others to pay. The woman I know hasn’t had a job for years.

Sociopaths have difficulties controlling their behavior. They are annoyed, impatient, aggressive, hasty, and often angry. The woman I know ended up in jail for attacking someone.

Sociopaths have no realistic long-term goals. Or their goals are unrealistic – like become a rock star or a famous actor. Or, like the woman I know, to become a TV reporter.

Sociopaths are irresponsible. They may not pay bills, show up late, or do a sloppy job.

They also won’t accept responsibility for their own actions. According to the woman I know, nothing was ever her fault.

Sociopaths you have known

Sociopaths cause so many problems, but, at least right now, we have no way of curing them. Put them in the general prison population or in a mental hospital, and they’ll find ways to manipulate the other inmates.

In order for a person to be change, they must want to be changed. Dr. Hare and others say that sociopaths seldom, if ever, want to be fixed.

Think about people you have come across at work, at school, in your neighborhood, even at church. Chances are that there might be someone who embodies a large number of these traits.

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April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com

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You Need To Love Your Characters, by Lish McBride

I’ve been having a problem recently with the book I’m working on. Let’s call it New Thing. In this New Thing, my main character has a boyfriend. We’ll call him C.J. My editor and agent have both lodged complaints about C.J. He’s flat an boring, and they can’t understand why my main character, Ava, would be with such a person. I agree with them but also point out that all of us at one time date someone like that. You know, that person you date that none of yours friends get why you are dating, and when you break up you also wonder what possessed you to spend time with someone like that? Yeah, it’s like that.

Usually, in those situations, you can argue back to your friends with something. Maybe you liked that he had impeccable table manners. Maybe she was a primo whistler or she tutored you in math. It could even be something embarrassing and shallow, like he was really good looking or she drove a nice car. Whatever. You had a reason for dating them, even if it was a terrible one.

There in lies my problem – my character doesn’t have much of a reason to date C.J. Sure, he’s attractive and he’s normal, which is something my character craves, but they think it’s not enough. Their argument is that she is too smart and even if he were crap, she’d have more justifications for dating him, even if they were flimsy. You know what? They’re right. As it stands, C.J. is pretty lame.

Usually I have no issue filling out my characters. I spend a lot of time on it and I love them and I want that to shine through. That’s the problem. I don’t love C.J. I don’t even like him very much. I kind of want to kick him in the shins, except I don’t care enough to be bothered. This is a problem. You have to love your characters. Even the awful ones: the bad guys, the thugs, the skeezy back-stabbers. There has to be something you enjoy about them, even if it’s how much you like seeing them get their comeuppance.

We all love a good bad guy. What’s Harry Potter without Voldemort? 101 Dalmatians without Cruella DeVille? Sure, Snow White is cool and all but, really, we’re more fascinated with the Evil Queen. We want to know what makes her tick. C.J. isn’t the bad guy. He’s just a normal guy… which is part of the problem. I find normal boring and confusing. I have almost no interest in it and can’t understand why anyone would find it desirable. Normal, to me, is the human equivalent of the color beige. It’s boring and bland, but, hey, it will go with anything.

C.J. will continue to be boring and flat until I find something in him to like. He’s necessary to the story and very necessary to my main character, so I need to make him work. He’s not my dream; he’s hers. Until I can find something worthwhile in him, I’m going to have to keep writing drafts. One crap, flat character can tank a whole book. The whole situation reminds me of a line from a song that I find rather depressing, personally, “If you can’t love the one you want, love the one you’re with.” It’s terrible life advice but good for fiction.

Homework: Look at characters you love (or love to hate). What do you like that they do? Why do you like them? Then take a character you’re having a hard time fleshing out and write out a list of things that you like about them or things that you like that they bring to the story. Sometimes writing a scene just about them helps, even if it won’t make it into the book. Those writing exercises usually show me something surprising in a character and I’ll find myself connecting or sympathizing with them on this new point. I discovered a lot of these moments with my character Douglas in Necromancing the Stone. He’s a big jerk but I truly do feel sorry for him.

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

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On Creating Interesting Characters For Historical Teen Novels, by Pauline Francis

For me, an interesting character is somebody who has all the odds stacked against them and has to find a way out. They must have a strong, believable voice that sweeps the reader along.

Just as I was beginning to write historical fiction for teenagers, I went to a conference and wrote down a wonderful quotation from one of the speakers (unfortunately, I didn’t make a note of the speaker’s name). It was: “Characters in history are just like the stars. It takes a long time for their light to reach us.”

The two narrators of my first novel, Raven Queen, were real: Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I. They are strong characters, fighting for their cause. In my second novel, A World Away, I made up my central character, Nadie, a Native American girl captured by English colonists. If I’m honest, she is the least interesting of all my characters because she didn’t really know her path in life (except to find the English boy she loved) and I think this weakened her voice. I’d love to go back and change her because it’s an interesting novel in all other ways. I have begun to move away from real characters to concentrate on fictional characters who find themselves in real-history situations. My new novel (Ice Girl, not published yet) is the story of a girl at the mercy of Spanish colonists who fights back with incredible courage and determination, as well as leading other conquered people to safety.

I’ve just read a novel with the most amazing character. It gripped from beginning to end because the narrative voice is so strong. It’s Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, which has just won the children’s category of the UK annual Costa prize. The agonising story is told in the first person by a fifteen year old boy called Standish (an unusual name). It’s tear-jerking and harsh (there’s very strong language because it’s mainly his thoughts, so the outside world wouldn’t usually hear it).

If you’re having problem choosing a character, try turning a situation on its head. Many Kings from history had mistresses. Sometimes they bore sons who claimed the throne (the term pretender to the throne is from the French pretendre – to claim). What was it like to be a pretender? I decided to make the fictional Francis (in Traitor’s Kiss) a good person. He doesn’t actually stake his claim as Henry the VIII’s son, but he could have. So he’s still a threat. Princess Elizabeth knows this. Francis becomes one of her victims. She leaves him in a madhouse called Bedlam, just in case he decides to make trouble for her. My novel-in-progress (Blood) is set against the French Revolution. It was a time of great innovation medically and my fictional narrator wants to be an anatomy artist.

You don’t have to make a huge leap of imagination to make your characters interesting. Often a small one will be enough to bring your character alive. In Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick, the story of murder and revenge is made gripping because the action takes place in a small log cabin over a few days with the body of the narrator’s father on the kitchen table. It is that dead father who sends a chill down our spine. He is the interesting character. If the story had been narrated by his son in the future, away from that log cabin, it would have become another murder/revenge story.

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Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

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Writing Believable Teen Characters, by Lish McBride

There are a series of questions that I get at events that always make me do that confused-puppy-head-tilt thing, and though they seem different at first, they are at their core the same question. They go something like this:

“How do you write a male teen character? You’re not a teenage boy!”

“How do you write from the point of view of a teenager when you are obviously full of old?”

“How do I create my own believable teen character when I spend all day eating pudding in a nursing home? Kids are so different these days with their iPads and their Beach Boy records…”

You get the idea. So put down your liniment, turn up your hearing aid and turn off your Victrola.

Here’s the thing – it’s not like we’re talking about strange creatures from the moon. Human experience is human experience. Teens – and I know this might come as a surprise – are people. I know. It’s crazy. They are people and they have emotions just like other people. Sure, things can feel more immediate and intense at that age, but they are, at their base, they same emotions that you have. Even someone like me who has the emotional spectrum of a dilapidated robot can manage it, so I’m sure you can too.

For teen authors: just because you are a teen, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it right either. Sometimes it’s the hardest to write what’s closest to us. Or, if you are like me when I was a teen, you might not really understand what on Earth your peer group is up to. I certainly didn’t get it until I was older. You might be a little swifter on the uptake though.

Back to the earlier questions – no, the last time I checked, I was not a teenage boy. But I’m not a werewolf or a necromancer either and no one asks me how I can write about that without personal experience. Because I write fiction and I’m making it all up. I am imagining what it would be like to be a teen guy in those situations. If I am worried that my responses aren’t “male” enough” I ask a guy friend their opinion. But really, it is generally not necessary, because when I’m writing I don’t think, “What would a guy do?” I think, “What would Sam (my male main character) do? Because it’s not about Sam being a guy necessarily, it’s about him being Sam. He’s not going to bust through the door dressed in leather ready to fight a room full of bikers. He’s not going to do tequila shots and watch the football game on the big screen. He’s not going to become a lumberjack and grow a big, bushy beard. He’s not that kind of guy. Sam is more of the, “Let’s play D&D and go to the record shop,” kind of guy.

Teens are like any other character. Your teen character is going to talk differently, think differently and react differently than other teen characters. Because people are different. Gender isn’t black and white – it’s a spectrum of greys with black and white bookends. Maturity doesn’t necessarily come with age. I know some teens that are more mature and practical than grown up people that I meet. So attempting to write a believable teen is just as hard for a teen author as it is an adult author, because, honestly, you’re still trying to create a unique and complete human being out of nothing.

Though I have tried to block them out, I still remember my teen years. I can draw from that experience. They were, in fact, terrible. I find it very funny that I hated high school so much, and now I spend my time imagining people that are in high school. I would say it’s like a nightmare, but really, I love writing for teens.

Flesh out your teen character like you would any other character. What do they want? What are their dreams? What are they going to learn? What do they like to do with their free time?  Don’t ask yourself, “Would a teen do that?” Ask, “Would MY teen do that?” Treat them like they are real people and that will go a long way. (You should also do this with real live teens.)

Homework: Think about your favorite teens in fiction or in real life. What is surprising about them? What is important to them? What do they do/think/say that make them individuals? Then apply these thoughts to your teen character.

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

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Creating Teenage Characters For Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

If you’re writing teen novels you’re probably not a teen. In fact, you’re probably well into adulthood and burdened with adult responsibilities. So how do you stay connected to today’s teens in order to create believable teen characters?

First of all, draw on your memories of being a teen. Remember the rawness of emotions, the vulnerability and insecurity. Additionally, remember – and honor – the rampant optimism inherent in being a teen. That was a time when dreams were big and anything was possible. I currently have a clipping from Elle magazine on my desk that features a photographer discussing her portraits of children and teens. In it she says, “What I like about young people is the potential is there but not developed yet. In a way, they’re sort of abstract.” I think that’s a wonderful example of why it’s enjoyable to write teen fiction. The possibilities for character development are endless.

Second, work to understand how today’s teens live their lives. Know what music they’re listening to, what movies and television shows they’re watching, and what clothes they’re wearing. Interact with teens if possible, perhaps kids in your neighborhood or at a nearby school. Sense the energy they’re expressing. Is it rebellion, hope, dismay, anger, fear…? Tap into that with the theme of your novel and explore those generational identities. Add your own opinions, if you’d like, through one of the characters in the story or in the way the story plays out. Just don’t preach!

Third, be open to any and all serendipitous interaction with teens, whether it’s overhearing a conversation on a bus or responding to a reader’s letter. Always be listening. Not long ago the teenage daughter of a neighbor recently appeared at my door in tears over an argument she’d just had with her mother. I invited her in, of course, and listened to her tell me why she should be allowed to travel to a foreign country by herself next summer and why her mother had said she couldn’t. I care for this girl as if she were my own and shared her hurt. I listened carefully as she stated her case. “My mom’s so bossy. She won’t listen. She won’t even consider it. She always has to be right. I know it’s because she didn’t get to do these things. She thinks it’s a big bad world out there. She always expects the worst. She doesn’t trust me to make the right decisions to not get into trouble.”

What I heard was a girl who wanted to stretch her wings and was crushed by the belief that her mother doesn’t recognize her capabilities, doesn’t trust her and insists on keeping her fastened to the earth. She had a hurdle and a desire to overcome it – two essential story components. As the conversation went on, I learned that her father had joined the discussion and had supported her wish to travel independently, adding conflict between the parents.

This simple event could be turned into a realistic and compelling story. Just how far would a young teen girl go to achieve her dream? Would she stow away on a plane, run off with someone she met online or disappear entirely? What dangers would she face: drugs, kidnapping, rape, theft? Conversely – let’s exaggerate here – what would happen if her parents kept her here, inconsiderate of her dreams? How might she react: rebel by breaking rules, act out in school, pit one parent against the other?

All of the components of a believable teen story were present in my living room, contorted by hormones, tears and a youthful desire to be free. I could easily have fallen into the parental role (my own daughter is just five years older) but I chose to be a good friend and listener. I kept my writer’s ear open to better understand and connect with this teen girl and the way she lived her life.

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

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Creating Teen Characters For Dystopian Novels, by Sam Hawksmoor

Why does Katniss work so well as a character in The Hunger Games?  (Although I never really saw Jennifer Lawrence as my Katniss, I eventually warmed to her).  She knows hunger.  She knows courage and rebellion. She breaks the rules daily to hunt for food to feed her family.  She understands self-sacrifice and is devoted to her family.  All of this is in the first chapter of the novel.  Who couldn’t like her?  That she is thrown into this terrifying Big Brother Reality Arena with weapons as she is forced to fight to the death is the thrill, of course, but so too is her magnanimity and compassion (this is also her flaw).

If you think people (teens in particular) like this don’t exist, you weren’t watching the 2012 Olympics.  Jessica Ennis won gold in the heptathlon.  Running, jumping, javelin throwing, yet more running, and hurdles over water jumps and hazards. Four years of dedicated training, 15 hours a day, forcing yourself on through injuries, all kinds of setbacks, challenging yourself, submitting yourself to endless heats, never accepting defeat but renewing your efforts each time you are beaten. Multiply this by thousands and thousands of young athletes dedicated to the glory of achievement with a medal rather than financial reward and you will understand that Katniss has done the required 10,000 hours it takes to be a champion.

Creating teen characters who will strive, survive, love with all the intensity of a small nuclear explosion (and hate in the same strength) is what it takes; all this tinged with regret for the fleeting times between 15 and 20 when everything is so important and immediate, so much about you.  Every relationship is ‘the one’ until the next one. Every break-up is devastating until the next one.  Your hormones are raging and won’t leave you alone.  Your life goes from total focus to total distraction in a flash and all around there is betrayal, paranoia, expectation, utter boredom and restrictions. Even so, you are supposed to make plans for your life and career.   You either know exactly what you want to be or have absolutely no idea at all and everything seems out of reach.  Your parents are conspiring against you.  Girls you knew at school last year are going past the school with babies, and some have dropped out because of all the stupid other temptations that trip you up on the way.  You’re still there – slogging away at exams you hate for subjects you have no interest in.  No wonder dystopia is in fashion.  Who wouldn’t want to destroy all this and start over, only with a full fridge and working shower?  The world is utterly mad – until he or she suddenly smiles at you and a door opens to new possibilities. Too late, you discover that love is not the answer – just the question.  But that’s another story.

Characters emerge out of this seething cauldron. I’ll leave you with the words of Ferris Bueller from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
Ferris: The question isn’t “what are we going to do,” the question is “what aren’t we going to do?”

Cameron: Please don’t say were not going to take the car home. Please don’t say were not going to take the car home. Please don’t say were not going to take the car home.

Ferris: [to the camera] If you had access to a car like this, would you take it back right away?
[beat]
Neither would I.

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Sam Hawksmoor’s author website: www.samhawksmoor.com

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On Character Development For Novelists, by Kate Forsyth

Why is it that some books you read linger in your heart and mind for the rest of your life, while you have trouble remembering much about another book only a few days later?

It is because some books have characters that seem to leap off the page, vivid and alive. These characters have a story to tell that moves and challenges you, making your pulse hurry and your throat thicken, making you turn the pages faster and faster because you so desperately want to know what happens next.

How do we, as writers, create characters who sing and dance and leap? How do we tell a story that makes someone we have never meet sigh, laugh out loud and weep?

To me, character and plot are the most important cogs in the well-oiled machine that is a working story. It is also where many writers fail.

Let’s start with character, the mainspring of any story’s mechanics.

Character building is, I think, one of the trickiest parts of writing a novel, and the one factor that can transform a mediocre book into a marvellous one. Usually our favourite books are the ones in which we wish the main character was our friend.

When writing about the books of Edith Nesbit, Noel Streatfield invented what she called the ‘bus test’: ‘One way of gauging the aliveness of a family in a children’s book is to ask yourself “Would I know them if they sat opposite me in a bus?”’

I think this is a test for all characters in all books - could you, for example, recognise Jo March and her sisters? Would you recognise Harry Potter or Miss Havisham? What about Sherlock Holmes? Scarlett O’Hara? Peter Pan?

Sometimes characters just appear in your imagination with a strong voice all of their own.

Sometimes you need to build them painstakingly from the ground up and wait for them to come to life.

I often find it takes about the first quarter of the first draft (around 20,000 words) for my characters to really begin to move and talk naturally. So don’t worry if you find it takes you a while to really connect - this is quite normal.

William Faulkner said: ‘It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands upon his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.’

Character 101

First, let’s consider what exactly a ‘character’ is.

Characters are the people who populate your story.

Characterisation: the process by which a writer makes those characters seem real to the reader.

Protagonist: the hero or heroine; the primary character or point of view with whom the reader connects and empathises

Antagonist: the character or force that stands directly opposed to the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story.

Foil: character whose behaviour and values provides a contrast to the protagonist in order to highlight their personalities i.e. weak to strong, quiet to talkative

Antihero: protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. He may weak and ineffectual; or greedy and cruel. It is much harder to build empathy for an anti-hero.

Static character: does not change throughout the work and the reader’s knowledge of that character does not grow.

Dynamic character: undergoes some kind of change because of the action in the plot. Usually the protagonist of a story is a dynamic character and their growth towards self-realisation and wisdom is the true narrative arc.

Flat character: embodies one or two qualities or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary.  Can sometimes be:

Stock character: embodies stereotypes such as the ‘dumb blonde’ or ‘the cruel stepmother’ and so forth.

Round characters: more complex than flat or stock characters, and often display the inconsistencies and internal conflicts found in most real people. They can grow and change and ‘surprise convincingly’.

Showing and Telling: Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and telling. Usually authors use a combination of both.

Showing: allows the author to present a character talking and acting, and lets the reader infer what kind of person the character is.

Telling: the author describes and evaluates the character for the reader.

Characters can be convincing, whether they are presented by showing or by telling, as long as their actions are motivated.

Character Tags:  everyone has certain individual mannerisms such as chewing their nails, sitting with one foot on top of the other, playing with their hair, etc. Try to find one or two that will help define each character i.e. a nervous girl who chews her bottom lip, a confident man who stands too close. A character tag can evoke the personality of a character far more powerfully than whole paragraphs of explanation. However, be careful not to overuse them.

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

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Choosing Character Names For Novels, by Paul Volponi

In my house, one of our great joys is the naming of a new pet. We have dogs, cats, and even a bearded dragon. My choices of names usually lose out to those of my wife and daughter (personally, I thought Barkley was a great name for a dog), but there is one place where I get to actually see my name choices come to fruition – in my Young Adult novels.

My inspirations for names come from a variety of places. Some come from students whom I have taught, some come from names I have seen across the back shoulders of sports jerseys, some come to me while listening to other people’s conversations in the street (it’s not that hard with everyone on cell phones these days), and some even arise from classic literature (I named a poker player Huck because the final card in Texas Hold’em is called ‘the River’). I keep a running list of names that I like and may one day want to use in a novel.

I also use a dictionary of names – and no, it’s not cheating. I enjoy hearing the meaning of names in dictionaries, sometimes matching them to a character’s qualities (in Hurricane Song, the preacher is named Culver, which means “dove”). Did you know that Shakespeare coined the name Jessica for a female? Previously, it had only been seen in the masculine form.

Are there any rules for naming characters? Well, obviously not. I do tend to stay away from very common names, such as Jim, John, Jane, and Mary. I also don’t want characters in the same book to have names that are too similar, such as Mr Johnson and Mrs Jones. Sometimes my characters, even really important ones, are simply referred to by their roles, instead of their names. For instance, in Black and White, a prominent character is referred to as Marcus’ mother, rather than by her actual name.

You should feel satisfied with the character names you choose. Don’t settle. I suppose some writers, without a concrete name in mind, can begin to write scenes, perhaps using a dummy name or ***** in its place. To me, that’s counter-productive. The names of your characters can stand for your ideas and represent them in a memorable way to the reading public. I want the main character’s name to have an intimate connection with the character’s development. For example, in Rooftop, the main protagonist is named Clay, because he will be moulded into a man in the pages to come. In Hurricane Song, the protagonist with a long journey ahead of him is named Miles. I can’t say for sure that readers in general pick up on those things. I’ve had a few teens bring those images/names up to me, wanting to discuss their origins. I do feel that they make an impact on a deeper, subconscious level.

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Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com

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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.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

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

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

 

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

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

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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

Kate Forsyth’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

The Puzzle Ring   

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)The Starthorn TreeThe Tower of Ravens (Rhiannon's Ride)The Puzzle Ring     Cleopatra ConfessesThe Night She DisappearedSpark

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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