In our third post of Crafting Characters, our authors and contributors share how they connect with their character’s traits–whether through pulling from their own personalities, using tarot cards, or looking for opportunities for opposition. Read on to find out their strategies. We hope you find one or more that can help you get to know your characters better.
Starting with Plot + Contradictory Characteristics Exercise
My stories so far have all been plot driven. I think of a story I’d like to write then I come up with the best character for the part. The first thing I do is fill out a brief questionnaire to get to know basic things about my character—physical features, family background, likes and dislikes, and very importantly what does he or she want. However, I don’t overthink this part as I know I’ll discover more about my character the more I write.
One of my favorite methods to get to know my characters comes from author Shakira Bourne (“Josephine Against the Sea”). Using three of my character’s traits/characteristics—two of which must be contradictory–I’ll create scenes where all three come into play at the same time. Then I just free write and see what my character does or says! Whether or not I end up using these scenes in my story, I always get to know my character a whole lot more!
—Pat Tanumihardja, her debut picture books have been announced for 2023: Ramen for Everyone and Jimmy’s Shoes, a biography of Jimmy Choo
Sharing Traits with Your Character
My main characters all grow out of some facet of myself (so far, at least—I’d love the challenge of writing a very unfamiliar protagonist someday!). Their surface-level desires depend on the story circumstances, but their deeper desires and fears evolve naturally from things that I’m personally working through. In MANATEE SUMMER, for instance, Peter wants to save an injured manatee, take good care of his sick grandfather, and stop his best friend from moving away. But on a deeper level, he’s trying to exert control—to fix everything that feels broken and to stop the tide of change, because change is terrifying. I really relate to this, and I think the audacious hope of storytelling is that others will relate to it, too.
Picture Books vs. Longer Books + Discovery Through Tarot Cards
In all honesty, I’m not sure I ever get to know my picture book characters in the same way I get to know my characters in a longer work like middle grade or a graphic novel. With picture books, we know what the main character’s problem is to their core and laser focus on that one emotion to keep the story simplified. And it’s not to say we can’t have a more complicated character for picture books – because you can still develop and get to know their character through action.
But for a main character in a larger work, we have to create a more complex character, with flaws, figure out their moral compass, what makes them tick, and their belief system. Because of this, I started using tarot cards that helped me with creating more complex and rich characters by interpreting what the card pulled may mean for the character. (I was inspired by this tarot writing class with Sandra Novak.) Instead of going with an original idea, I was able to entertain other possibilities and what outcomes those possibilities might mean for the character. And honestly, I feel, every character we create is someone who is deep inside of us, a part of our imagination, someone who embodies something we’ve dreamed to be, or a ‘What If? scenario.
If you missed our first two days of Crafting Characters, check them out!
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.