In the last post, I addressed round vs. flat characters. Now let’s discuss how to create round characters.
First, a confession. In many of the middle-grade books I’ve written, character has taken second place to plot or to concepts I’m trying to get across. Two books, I think, have really deep character exploration. One is THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE, where virtually all the characters are round enough to have shadows–darker, more complex facets to their personalities. You can imagine them having bad dreams. But BEECHWOOD FLUTE is a young adult novel; it has a little more room than the average middle-grade novel.
The same could be said for THE ICE CASTLE, which is the second book in my Lexicon series. It’s written for ages 10 to 14 or so, but it’s longer than many books for that age range. In it, my characters Daphne and Ivan become much more complicated and individuated than in LOST IN LEXICON. They clash about social justice in a world where all that matters is how well a person sings, and they take action in separate spheres. But perhaps I had the most fun delineating their spoiled but constricted cousin Lila, a child singing star who wakes to her own sense of freedom.
But I think my best characters yet are in a middle-grade novel that will be coming about a year from now called . The heroine is a seventh-grade girl, half-Kenyan like my nephews, and her conflicts involve identity (not just racial identity, but her identity as a young scientist) and justice. If any of you out there are interested in seeing an advance copy to review it, please let me know!
Now that self-promotion is out of the way, on to how to create characters. Many writing manuals will suggest that you should know everything about your character before you begin: looks, fashion choices, age, family tree, hobbies, schooling, greatest hopes and fears, house and neighborhood, favorite foods and TV shows and bands, etc. I’m not so sure. I’m always wary of the assignments we give ourselves to put off actually sitting down and writing a first draft.
I like to get to know a character the way I get to know a friend: by observing him or her, hearing her speak, gradually learning more about his background as we become closer. Characters start to inhabit the writer’s head; they become clearer over time. Yes, it can be helpful to ask yourself questions like the following:
What does this character fear most?
What does she hope for?
What is his happiest memory?
Who are her heroes?
What embarrasses him?
What does she carry in her pocket?
But I think these questions are better asked over time, as you see how your character speaks and acts.
Think of a dating app. Imagine filling out an extremely lengthy questionnaire, and then choosing a date based on answers to something similar. By the time you go on your first date you might already be a little bored by your partner, or you might find that despite all the careful screening there’s just no chemistry.
With your characters, you have to have chemistry first. There’s no way you’re going to want to spend a year or more with someone who never reveals more layers and never surprises you. Let character be something that deepens and reveals itself over time, even to you.