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…From the inside out

I attended a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) writers retreat this past weekend in Southern California. It was a working retreat, where aside from critiques and talking with editors one-on-one, the Young Adult (YA) and Middle Grade (MG) authors participated in hands-on workshops for developing richly layered characters. Something I need to work on, and I learned A LOT!

In the initial stages of defining a character, if you’re like me, you focus on the character’s strengths. What their good at, why people like them, how they affect the people around them in a positive way. That’s all good. But for a character to be fully developed and believable, you can’t gloss over their flaws. That’s because it’s the flaws that make a character likeable. Their faults are what we relate to, why we fall in love with the character. Take Mia Thermopolis‘ klutziness in the Princess Diaries, for example. Her dorkiness is what endears her to us, because we’ve ALL been there. At one time or another. One reason I love Meg Cabot’s books, is that she is a master at developing quirky, well-rounded characters.

But of course, to draw us in so we care about a character we can’t insert a bulleted list of good and bad traits. We have to layer in them so the traits are discovered through actions and reactions to other characters. Just like us, characters won’t interact with everyone in the same way. What a parent says will piss them off.

However, a friend can say the same thing and the character takes the advice to heart, or laughs it off. Defining a character through their interactions with the people around them — their circle of influence (COI) — is what makes them believable.

Another tool for building a character with greater emotional impact is to use traits that go against type.  For example, in one workshop at the retreat we wrote a scene with two characters that showed their flaws. I chose a paranoid, arrogant, and tad superstitious Jiminy Cricket pitted against a perfectionist Pinocchio who was theatrical and self-righteous. So not the Disney classics, but that’s the point.

Dare to be different. Breathe freshness and fun into your characters with unusual or conflicting traits. And it’s important to remember that in many cases …

…characters speak to conceal rather than to reveal.

That’s subtext … and a whole other topic … for another blog.

Implements of Construction

Here are some useful resources for building emotional impact into your characters:

What character is most memorable for you (film or fiction) and why?

Inquiring minds want to know!