It’s CRAFTING CHARACTERS post number 5! Today we’ve got something for everyone–working from the outside in, and special tips for getting to know your non-fiction characters. Whether it’s asking “what if”? or interrogating a character’s economic circumstances, whether diving into research or interviewing a real live person, in this post you’ll find wisdom for taking your characters–both fictional and real–to the next level.
Working Outside In
Asking, What If?
To answer the first question, how do you get to know your character:
I often start with a what-if question, which then leads me to the protagonist.
- What if an Irish-Catholic girl living in East Boston in 1918 is sent to work for a staunchly WASP family in the country and discovers a secret?
- What if a boy whose dad has unrealistic expectations of him copes with fear and loneliness by reading books to shelter dogs?
- What if a girl whose brother has disappeared is befriended by a mysterious newcomer who helps her solve her adoption questions?
- What if a girl living in 1969 whose mother is Japanese and father is Black and who dreams of becoming an astronaut must navigate life in a community where no one looks like her?
- What if a boy living in an authoritarian nation questions everything he believes after becoming acquainted with an elderly woman with a fantastic story?
Once I have this germ of the story, the character begins to form. I begin to develop their living situation, their family or community, their value system. Then I interview them to find what they want, what’s in their way, and what they actually need, and any other details about them that I need before beginning to write. I never fully know the character when I begin to write, but I have these basic questions answered. Of course, things may change as I write and revise, but discovery is part of the adventure.
—Marilyn Hilton, poet and author of middle grade novels
When getting to know my character, I figure out what’s happening on the outside first. What is happening around the character? What are their goals? What are their fears? How are the people and the environment interfering with this? Then, once I know what’s happening on the outside, I go inside, and dig around for the feelings. How would I feel if something like this was happening to me. What would my thoughts be like? What would I see? What physical things would be happening to my body? (trembling? nail biting? eye-twitch?). From there, I start writing.
Dig into Economic Background
I’ve found that exploring the economic circumstances of my characters and their families is an incredibly rich source of detailed information about who they are, what they want, and how they think about themselves as I build a story. When I’m starting to work on a new project, I have to know who this character is, how old they are, who they live with, where they live, what’s in their house, how they spend their time and basically every other detail about their life.
I do that with a lot of sidewriting. (If you missed last year’s April Sidewriting Takeover, find all the exercises here.) Sidewriting is work that will probably never make it into my WIP, but is a crucial step in helping me build a rich story. I’ll ask myself a question, like “how did they spend their last birthday?” and then freewrite the answer. A good question might get me a few paragraphs of valuable information. A great question will get me writing for pages and pages, drifting off into other details and/or stories that might have nothing to do with birthdays.
As an example, I once asked myself if my character’s mom breastfed him, and suddenly I found myself learning all sorts of details about the family’s financial circumstances, the parents’ education, past jobs, a drinking problem, extended family and on and on and on. With that one question, I discovered something vitally important to who my character is now that had happened to him as a very young child. It was like a curtain had been pulled back, and I was watching the most engrossing movie. All I had to do was take notes.
Bottom line, I want to discover details about my character that are as rich and full as my own memories of asking for a pair of Adidas shoes but getting the blue 4-stripe knock-off, and the shame of having to wear them to school. Every person has things happen to them. Our job as writers is to find them and create those “memories.”
–Cathy Petter, find her KidLit Craft posts here
Special Tips for Non-Fiction Characters
Rely on Setting for Expanding Non-Fiction Characters
When writing nonfiction, many times you can’t find primary sources to help you get to know your characters. In those cases, I often rely on setting to expand a portrait. If I can’t reveal a person through their own words, I can use research into their world—location, economic factors, social expectations—to show what their lives could have been like. In my Spooky America books, the setting almost becomes a character itself, one that interacts with each of the profiled ghosts. This also works with fiction, for I often consider the outside world as I develop my protagonist. How do they move through their setting? What’s expected of them? Do they think they fit in? Answering these questions is a crucial part of character development.
Talk to the Person and Dig into Research
I’m still learning from the pros about how to get to know fictional characters (i.e. Rebecca Bendheim, my fellow Line Tamer VCFA classmate just moved to Austin, and she’s been giving me all the tips). For nonfiction, I do have a few ideas that have worked! When I was deep in research mode to write the picture book biography of late, great Texas Governor Ann Richards (INDELIBLE ANN – illustrated by Carlynn Whitt), I spent two months living and breathing all Ann Richards media that I could get my ears and eyes and hands on. I read her autobiography, a biography, watched youtube videos of her speeches and interviews, went to the state archives commission to find her speeches, and talked to folks who knew and worked with her. I even drove to a small college library in San Antonio to watch a discontinued HBO Documentary that I was not allowed to check out. So much of Governor Richards’s skill was tied to her incredible speaking prowess and storytelling strength, so I knew studying her words
was paramount. I started hearing the Guv’s voice in my head. I knew I was ready to start working up the manuscript when I was driving down the highway one afternoon to pick up kiddos from preschool, and the opening lines of that book started coming through. I repeated them over and over out loud until I got to a place where I could pull over and scribble them down in my journal.
Working on DOROTHY THE BRAVE (illustrated by Brooke Smart) was a very different experience, since my subject is still alive, and I had the honor to visit with her in person back in 2018 (I actually interviewed her for the first time as an eighth grader in 1999). Dorothy turned ninety-nine last December, and her short-term memory isn’t what it used to be, but she was able to give me lots of details about her girlhood days and her experience as an aviator in World War 2. Part of the research I did for that book was using ancestry.com to find associated documents for Dorothy, and I was elated to put my eyes on the interiors of her high school year book, where she’d listed a few of her favorite things.
These details made it into the manuscript, and actually I’m pretty sure my line about pineapple ice cream may be wholly responsible for landing my amazing agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, who connected immediately to that piece of nostalgic Americana. Finding these little details is the best kind of treasure hunt and has helped me develop the characters in my nonfiction stories.
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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.