It’s a privilege to return to the Teaching Authors blog with a guest post, especially for a Wednesday Writing Workout about creating characters. My recently released middle grade historical novel, Bjorn’s Gift, is the second book in a trilogy that emerged from my debut novel, Odin’s Promise, in 2014.
The initial book was written as a stand-alone historical novel based on the first year of the German occupation of Norway. I had spent years researching, writing, and revising, never quite finding a main character who was as eager to tell the story as I was. I worked on it through years of sporadic efforts tucked in between teaching and writing other things. Then, in a scholarly resource, I found and read journal entries written by young Norwegians. Mari emerged from those excerpts, stepping into my long years of false starts and reshaping them to reveal her point of view and life struggles. She added elements and eliminated others, confidently guiding my words on the page. Within months of finding Mari’s spirit within those journal samples, I completed a full draft. Less than a year later, it had been revised, submitted, and was contracted for release.
Once it was published, readers consistently asked, “When is the sequel coming out?” I worried that the ending hadn’t been satisfying. The gratifying response was that the ending made perfect sense, but the occupation wasn’t over and readers felt they HAD to know what would happen to Mari and her family during the remaining war years. They cared about Mari as much as I did, as if she were “real.” And they wanted to learn more about Norway’s fate and hers. Their questions were both specific and global.
Can you imagine how wonderful that felt? A character that was born of my research, imagination, and storytelling had “come to life” on the page for my readers.
But it was also terrifying!
I had never considered a sequel, and I didn’t know how to write one. It had taken me decades to write about just one year of the occupation, and there were four more years before Hitler was defeated. At that rate I wouldn’t live long enough to answer their questions.
I knew how to do research, though, and to tell a story. And I had Mari to guide me along the way. In the process she and I both had some growing up to do. It was a struggle, and a steep learning curve, but Bjorn’s Gift is on the racks, and the final book, Mari’s Hope, will release in spring, 2017.
When I finally put pen to paper, feedback on my first draft from critique partners and my editor had this in common: “Less history, more story-telling, please.” Apparently I had written Mari’s story with too much of my “teacher voice,” eagerly “reporting” what I had learned about the remaining occupation years. Once again I needed to turn the story over to Mari. I began by “asking” her, “Does this matter to you?” “Does this make your story stronger?” That applied in several categories:
Do these research discoveries matter?
I reviewed the stacks of facts and personal stories I had collected. Each was examined though Mari’s eyes and sorted into MUST HAVE, MAYBE, or DUMP. I retained no veto power over her decisions, although I rescued some personal favorites from the DUMP. Those tidbits may find their way into website resources, other writings, or program presentations.
Is each scene and situation necessary?
Scenes and subplots were held up for Mari’s scrutiny. She insisted that anyone who reads only this book of the three should feel as engaged and positive about it as they did about the first. Once again, her categories were MUST HAVE, MAYBE, or DUMP. Any MAYBE scenes that weren’t improved by moving or refocusing on Mari’s story made their way to the DUMP. Some of Mari’s rejects had been favorites of mine, but I let her have the last word, although I snuck behind Mari’s back, collecting her discards for repurposing in the future.
Is every character pulling his/her load?
The toughest part of this analysis was that Mari and I cared differently for various secondary characters, and for different reasons. Salvaging in this category involved giving the survivors more complex personalities and roles, incorporating elements from the rejected players. Here, too, voice was a crucial consideration. In at least one case I won a reprieve by going back to rewrite a character’s point of view and voice, removing the adult-ish tone of a young character and proving that the part still mattered to the story. Mari was convinced, and the character stayed.
The workout I’m suggesting isn’t about writing a sequel. Despite reading many series with a writer’s eye and now writing a trilogy, I’m a novice at it. There are better teachers of sequel-writing than I can be.
What I did write successfully was characters who are REAL. I hope you can see from the process I used that Mari was both real and reliable in guiding my writing and revision. The process itself made her even more real to me, allowing me to debate various decisions and dig more deeply into what mattered most to her.
Having Mari as a fully developed character going into this process was a huge advantage. Nevertheless, there are things writers can do to achieve that same level of confidence in your characters, to lift them from being two-dimensional “character-actors” to a level worthy of decision-makers and writing partners.
Here’s a workout to try:
Identify several questions related to the time and circumstances of your character’s story, whether the text is for a picture book, a short story, or a novel. It may be a question or proposition that’s not even a part of your story, just a topic that your main character would know and care about.
Challenge your character to support or criticize the proposition relative to his/her/its life experience, using one or more of these approaches:
- Role play a debate: Take the part of your character and invite writing partners or others to argue the opposite position. Maintain your character’s voice and point of view throughout the debate, making notes about what arguments, logic (or lack of it) comes through, what values are espoused, what temperament your character displays, what mannerisms or language patterns are used.
- Assign your character to make a pro-con list regarding the proposition or decision: Again, keeping yourself in the mindset and voice of the character, list and support both sides of the case as fully as possible, then arrive at a conclusion. Write a summary of the conclusion in the character's voice.
- Offer your character a red pencil: Allow your character to read through your draft and redline any/all parts that distract, diminish, or otherwise impede the progress of the story the character needs to tell. Require explanations for the choices and be ready to “listen” openly to what is said.
I applied this process to historic characters and stories. For additional exercises on creating REAL contemporary characters, I strongly recommend Kate Messner’s Real Revision: Authors' Strategies to Share with Student Writers (Stenhouse Publishers, 2011), in particular, her Chapter 9, "Are the People Real?" It’s a treasury of practical and effective craft suggestions, but the entire book is a must-have for writers, especially those of us who teach.
One last tip: if you find yourself struggling to hear your own character’s voice and views in this workout, try it with something you’ve read and loved. It will be particularly helpful if it is something you consider comparable to your own work. If the author has done his/her work well, you should be able to crawl into the skin of that character and, in the process, recognize how complex and real even picture book characters can be to readers.
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