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Developing Character with Story

May 22, 2013 by Kiersi

Chet GeckoI had an amazing time at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Oregon conference this past weekend. I learned craft from Laini Taylor (author of Daughter of Smoke and Bone), middle-grade humor from Bruce Hale (the very prolific middle-grade author of the Chet Gecko series), and attended a special session on story and character arcs by HarperCollins editor Andrew Harwell.

The main lesson I came home with was in regards to character. Of course, I picked up a lot about writing for a middle-grade audience, which is invaluable to the point that I can’t express myself in words, and writing as a reader experience. But mostly, I started thinking long and hard about character.

Character and story function as a feedback loop: one informs the other. I don’t think a story is complete if it’s purely character-driven, but neither if it’s purely plot-driven. I said to someone last week that “readers fall in love with characters,” so giving them a character to love right off the bat is important. But this week, as I’m mulling over some of my favorite high concept books (one of Laini Taylor’s best pieces of advice was to “read what you love and dissect what you love about it”), I thought, “No, we fall in love with stories, too.”

That led me to the conclusion that they work best when completely in tandem. Andrew Harwell’s discussion of plot and character arc as two distinct, separate, but overlapping units made so much sense to me.

As we were workshopping synopses (a few folks read their MG manuscript synopses out loud, and Andrew provided feedback), Andrew said something that really stuck with me. He was complimenting a synopsis and said:

“I like how you check back in with the characters after each major event, so we know how they feel about it, and how they’ve changed as a result in their desires and actions.”

This isn’t verbatim, but you get the idea: the synopsis told us how each plot point wasn’t just important in the arc of the story, but in each character’s arc, too.

No plot point should go without affecting or changing the characters. If you’re looking for something to cut during a revision, cut the things that are purely plot or story-driven. As you’re planning or outlining or post-outlining, check back in with your characters and see how each event makes them feel, how each event changes them or affects them.

By the same token, I think it’s important to show character changes or developments with plot points. We talked a lot at this conference about how “action” is what keeps middle-grade readers hooked, and we need to give a lot of it at the beginning to reel them in. But “action-packed” doesn’t mean riddled with sword fights or explosions; action also comes from inter-character conflict and tension. There can be a lot of tension in a room with two people not talking. Maybe one knows something the other doesn’t; maybe they have a history together.

Armed with this new perspective on story and character, I’m tearing through my revisions. What are you working on? How do you monitor your character arcs?


14 Comments »

  1. Great post–I totally agree. My first drafts tend to be plot heavy, so I always go back and think about how my characters feel about these changes. Oftentimes that changes the plot, in turn. So yes–they totally work in tandem, even if they don’t come about simultaneously. 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing what you learned, Kiersi!

  3. Ruth says:

    Kiersi,

    That conference sounds amazing. What an impressively generous group of people! Good for you for learning so much.

    I wish I wrote stories; I’d like to try out your suggestions. Character rarely is an issue in scholarly writing though. How could I make that work? “The critic adjusted her glasses and slipped off her Birkenstocks. She lit the candle in her lonely garret, then slowly opened the book in front of her. As she read the passage, she reached for her pen without taking her eyes from the page — her Post-Its were already to hand. She carefully removed a sticky and applied it to the margin. After chewing the end of her pen for a long, long moment, she suddenly burst into action. Scribbling so furiously that her writing would be barely legible to herself later, she annotated, “Chaucer serious or satirical here? Hard to tell when he’s writing about Theseus. Might be both at once. Check source material for this tale.”

    Exhausted by her efforts, she fell back in the chair, then rallied sufficiently to get to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.”

    Ruth

  4. Jon says:

    Hey! I picked up Hale’s The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse at a library sale years ago, based on great title alone! And of course, the chameleon in a trenchcoat!

  5. beverlydiehl says:

    I hate what I call Barbie-doll stories – where the characters get moved around to facilitate the plot, without having any emotional reactions or seemingly tied into it.

    • Ruth Feiertag says:

      “Barbie-doll stories” — that’s a great term. It reminds me of when someone gave my brother a couple GI Joes. We couldn’t figure out what to do with them, so we used them as cargo in our Tonka trucks. We moved them around and they had no connection to the plot of our play. Now I’m feeling sorry for them.

  6. Really important to avoid them becoming two dimensional, I’m still learning!

  7. Writerlious says:

    I’m so jealous you had a class with Laini Taylor!! I hope we’ll see some more posts about her craft class. *grins*

    Daughter of Smoke and Bone was amazing. The whole time I was reading it, I kept noticing how expertly plotted it was and how perfect the character’s reactions were (as well as their emotional/inner journeys). I also loved that the ending wasn’t cookie cutter. Laini Taylor knows her s*#t! 🙂

  8. Jim Snell says:

    That’s funny – I just attended a writing conference too (Backspace in NYC). And left thinking mostly about character. More along the lines of deepening character. And thinking about a book by a guy I know who followed all the rules or “rules” for writing his thriller, but it just never gelled for me. Now I think because the characters didn’t seem real, even if they also did not seem quite cardboard. He gave the dashing main character a major flaw, and all that stuff you’re supposed to do – but still felt totally flat to me, as if they were being moved around in a story because an early outline forced them there.
    Liked what you said about coming back to a character. Jonathan Maberry talked about writing fight scenes. One of the things he emphasized is that after the scene, the characters should have some emotional reaction to the fight – something that resonates through the rest of the story.
    Last day of the conference, I felt like I learned more than in 4 semester long master’s level creative writing workshop classes. Now… if I can just put some of those things into my story.

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