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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.


Lish McBride’s author website:

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Hold Me Closer, NecromancerNecromancing the Stone     Raven SpeakRikers HighThe Empty KingdomShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)

Writing Teen Novels

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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Black Storm Comin'Raven SpeakTracksI Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade     Shock PointA World Away

Writing Teen Novels

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.


Kate Forsyth’s author website:

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The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)The Starthorn TreeThe Tower of Ravens (Rhiannon's Ride)The Puzzle Ring     Across the UniverseCode Name VerityTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2

Writing Teen Novels

Writing Characters In Historical Novels For Teens, by Carolyn Meyer

When you start to write a novel, you’re signing on for the long haul. It’s a marriage, or at least a long-term relationship. For at least a year, maybe longer, you’re going to live with your characters, sleep with them, dream about, walk and talk with them. So you’d better love them – especially the principal characters – a lot.

You can write about a historical event, such as the French Revolution, in which the main character is fictional, but I usually tell the story through the eyes of a historically important person, and I begin the story in that character’s youth. When I wrote The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette, I focused on the young teen who much later supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.”

The main character, real or fictional, must be sympathetic, while other characters help her or impede her. If she doesn’t have problems to deal with, if she doesn’t grow and change, you don’t have a story. Marie’s mother provides the early conflict. When Marie leaves Austria at fourteen and arrives in France, a nasty countess makes her life miserable. The hapless French prince she marries condemns her to unhappiness, and the handsome Swedish officer she meets when both are eighteen offers romance and temptation. The events of history and her own flaws propel the story to its tragic conclusion.

I knew that this girl would arouse my sympathies, lead me to despair, and finally bring me to understanding and forgiveness. Marie was a spoiled teenage princess, but the more I learned about her, the more I discovered a character I could fall in love with – and could make my readers understand and forgive her, too.

But how much of it is “true”? I don’t change known facts, but I do invent scenes and dialogue, and sometimes I create a character -a friend or a servant, say – to help tell the story. When I was writing Mary, Bloody Mary, about the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, I invented servants, a female friend, and the boy who was her falconer. In Cleopatra Confesses I created a cast of minor characters, because so little is known about her early life. Not a single soul needed to be added to the cast of Victoria Rebels, or of The Wild Queen, about Mary, Queen of Scots.

You can’t know too much about your characters, but it’s possible to say too much about them. I learned a lot about Victoria’s childhood, when Papa died and left her German Mama alone and penniless. I got caught up with those difficult early days – far more than my teen readers would be – and my editor prodded me to cut the first 30 pages. That was painful, but it improved the story. And I was much more sympathetic to the 12-year-old Victoria than I would have been if I hadn’t gotten to know her so well when she was much younger. The solution is to put everything in your first draft and then be absolutely ruthless and take most of it out. Your characters will survive the surgery, and your teen readers will fall in love with them just as surely as you did.


Carolyn Meyer’s author website:

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The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))Victoria RebelsMary, Bloody Mary     I Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's Shadow

Writing Teen Novels

The Hero’s Journey in YA Fiction, by Ben Chandler

I get asked about my writing practice a lot, and one of the things I get asked about most (usually by other writers) is if I’m a planner or a pantser. Do I plan out my novels, or do I write by the seat of my proverbials? When I wrote my first book, I pantsed it all the way. That’s probably why it was so awful. Forty-two alternating perspectives, shoved in a bottom drawer never to be seen again awful. Lesson learned, I now plan my work. There’s nothing wrong with pantsing (at least in this context). I know a few pantsers, and they produce great work. It’s just not something I can do well.

What has any of this to do with the Hero’s Journey in the title of this blog post? Like many young writers, and particularly young fantasy writers, the discovery of Joseph Campbell’s model for the Hero’s Journey was a true revelation. It’s what educators call a light bulb moment – that instant when realisation dawns: Ah! That’s how it works!

For those of you unfamiliar with Campbell’s work, go and read The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell examines a great many heroic myths and legends from around the world and from many ages and concludes that they each follow, more or less, the same pattern of events. This pattern is called the Hero’s Journey. What makes it so magical is that it seems to have sprung up, spontaneously and independently, in most cultures around the world. When I was first introduced to this apparently universal mythic plot structure, I thought I had finally uncovered the secret to good writing. If I just followed Campbell’s guidelines, as all of the great heroic writers had done before me, my fantasy would be just as great as their work. My heroes would be just as memorable.

Of course, I was wrong. This is because there is a second, deeper secret at the heart of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, one that took me much longer to decipher. Campbell wasn’t only writing about what the hero did on his or her journey, but on the effect that journey had the hero’s psychological development. On the surface, the Hero’s Journey is a road map of plot points along which anyone may march and emerge an everlasting hero, but at its core, the Hero’s Journey is about how the hero develops from what she or he is to what she or he can and must become. In writer-jargon, the Hero’s Journey is not about plot outlines at all, but about character arcs.

When I realised this, I understood that what happens in a novel is less important than the people it is happening to. It is the infinite variations of character that make the Hero’s Journey work, time and again. That’s why I don’t plan my plots. Oh, I have a notion of what’s going on in the grandest sense, but when I sit down to plan a novel I outline instead how I want my characters to develop throughout its course. The plot flows naturally from there. Action reveals character and provides the impetus for change within them, but if you don’t know your characters, or how you want them to change, or what it is you want to reveal about them, and why, then the plot becomes an empty checklist going through the heroic motions.

Character development is absolutely vital to Young Adult literature, because YA fiction focuses on the time of greatest change in us all – the progression from childhood to adult, the shaping of our minds and personalities, the development of our bodies, and the consequences of our choices. If you really want your YA writing to stand out, focus not on what your hero does, but on who they are and how their adventures shape them.


Ben Chandler author website:

Quillblade: Bk. 1 (Voyages of the Flying Dragon)Beast Child (Voyages of the Flying Dragon)Blood Song (Lharmell)VulpiThe Invisible AssassinThe Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

Beyond Good And Evil In Teen Fiction, by Ben Chandler

Do you believe in good and evil?

I was asked this question by a nine-year-old during my first public appearance as an author. I was both impressed and stunned. I mean, what nine-year-oldworries about good and evil? Stupid question. Every child does. Childhood is when we’re most concerned with the question. It’s only as we grow older that we’re introduced to the grey areas. When we’re young, we crave the simplicity of the good/evil dichotomy. It makes us feel safe, and that’s exactly why answering the above question is essential for writers of YA fantasy.

Here’s the thing: Good and Evil are boring. If you can answer the following question solely with reference to either, you’re writing is probably boring too: Why did your antagonists / protagonists do that? The assertions ‘my protagonist is good’ and ‘my antagonist is evil’ are fine in themselves, but they tell us absolutely nothing about who these people are or why they’re doing what they are doing. People don’t really sit around in their lairs plotting evil plots just for the sake of being evil, nor do they gallop around the countryside looking for pretty damsels to rescue just because they’re ‘good guys’(except maybe in parody or early 90s cartoons). Something drove them into that hollowed-out volcano or on that never-ending quest. I’m interested in what those something’s are. If you tell me it was ‘just because they’re evil’ or‘just because they’re good’ then I’m going to put your book down. This is what I like to call the Dark Lord Syndrome, or the Hero of Light Disease. It’s boring and, frankly, lazy writing. Writers need to give their characters some psychological depth and believable motivations.

Now, hang on a minute! What about that flaming eye in The Lord of the Rings or, you know, the Devil? I’m glad you asked, because these are the two most infamous Dark Lords in Western culture, and they are not simply embodiments of abstract evil. Sauron’s tale is actually pretty dense, and Lucifer’s fall is one of the most intriguing, most human, stories we have. It’s why Milton was accused of being ‘of the Devil’s party’ when he wrote Paradise Lost. The motivations behind Lucifer’s rebellion and subsequent fall are absolutely human. Milton’s Adam, on the other hand, comes off as the quintessential Good Guy who is so holier-than-thouthat no reader could possibly relate to him. Paradise Lost is a classic example of a perfect villain (Satan) and a completely awful hero (Adam). The former is complex and relatable, while the latter is good and perfect and boring as all Hell (see what I did there?).

Portraying characters with depth is vital in forging connections between those characters and their readers. Most readers just don’t relate to abstract principles. There’s nothing for them to latch onto. Writers need to give readers something more, put some meat on their characters’ bones. It’s the interesting fleshy bits that a reader will grab hold of and relate to.

If there’s any time for a writer to abandon simplistic notions of good and evil, it’s when they’re writing for a YA readership. Their readers have already caught a glimpse of the grey spaces and probably aren’t going to buy into the abstract absolutes any longer, particularly as motivating factors for the actions of heroes and villains. YA readers hunger for characters wrestling with the same moral dilemmas they are. They’ve moved beyond the simple answers they were given when they were growing up and are venturing into the grey, featureless moral wastes, perhaps for the very first time. This gives writers of YA fantasy plenty of scope to explore moral ambiguity in a way that’s meaningful for their readers and relevant to their characters.

So, do I believe in good and evil? Nope. I believe that even bad people have reasons for the things they do, even if those reasons seem like justifications or excuses to me, even if I think their actions are ‘evil’. We are none of us perfectly good, nor perfectly evil, and none of our YA characters should be either.


Ben Chandler author website:

Quillblade: Bk. 1 (Voyages of the Flying Dragon)Beast Child (Voyages of the Flying Dragon)The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Boxed SetThe Hobbit: Graphic NovelParadise LostDracula, Original Text: The Graphic NovelMacbeth (Wordsworth Classics)

Cameryn Mahoney: The ‘Other’ Katniss Everdeen, by Alane Ferguson

I just came back from viewing The Hunger Games (fantastic!), and as I walked away I couldn’t help but wonder at the similarities between Katniss Everdeen and Cameryn Mahoney.  Katniss was extremely strong and smart, and yet remained in many ways a vulnerable character.  This trifecta of qualities is exactly what I believe I gave Cameryn in my forensic books – she’s tough and extremely intelligent, but she still makes mistakes, some of which have almost cost Cameryn her life.  In the end it is her heart that is her most valuable asset.   Cameryn, like Katniss, relies on her intellect but gets tripped up by emotions.   And before you chalk that up as a weakness, I believe paradoxically their humanity is the essence of what makes both characters so strong.

There are other wildly popular teen books which are delicious to read but leave me empty, as if I’d just eaten a huge cone of pink, spun sugar. The Hunger Games did the opposite: it left me thinking. When I wrote The Christopher Killer (it was published before The Hunger Games) I’d hoped to create a character who was tough, inquisitive, extremely bright, headstrong, and yet…like any other girl, ultimately one who wanted to be loved.  For a writer, incorporating all of those facets is like playing a chord rather than a single note.  The problem is, making your writing sing is much easier said then done!

So here’s a secret I’m happy to share: creating complex characters requires real, deep-down honesty.  There are two things I do when I settle down to the task of birthing a brand new fictional soul, steps that I think are essential for authenticity.

First, I look within, examining even the darkest corners of my own being.  Do I ever get jealous?  (Answer: yes!)  Have I ever been completely sure I was right, only to find out later that I was totally wrong?  (Answer: you guessed it – yes again!)  Have I ever relied on my wits to talk myself out of a sticky situation?  (Answer:  many, many times.)  The point is, I take the best and the worst in me and unflinchingly commit those qualities to the page.  My protagonist in many ways is a reflection of myself – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  To make a character real, an author has to be fiercely authentic in order for the character to come across that way.

The second secret is to study others who float in and out of your day-to-day life.  It’s what I do.  When people talk, especially those with diverse life experiences, I listen with every fiber of my being, because understanding a different point of view is essential when you are an author.  While there are many things about me that are similar to Cameryn, in other ways we are not at all alike.  For example, while doing research in a morgue and faced with a row of corpses, I, Alane Ferguson, cringed as I fought the urge to run away. Cameryn Mahoney would just dive right in!  Cameryn is tougher than I am, so in order to round out Cameryn’s personality I took a bit of shading from Dr. Daniel Lingamfelter, a medical examiner who explained to me why he is fascinated with the forensic process.  Cameryn is a composite of myself and others – sort of a kaleidoscope of characteristics twirling into someone new.

The final culmination for me was Cameryn Mahoney.  For Suzanne Collins, it was Katniss Everdeen.  Both of these young women are people I would like to meet in real life. And I suspect, if they ever met, the two of them would become friends.


Alane Ferguson bio page

The Christopher KillerThe Angel of DeathThe Circle of BloodThe Dying BreathHunger Games (Hunger Games Trilogy)The Hunger Games Tribute Guide (Hunger Games Trilogy)The World of the Hunger Games


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