My latest middle grade mystery is now resting for a few weeks or months before I begin revision. I've finished my contest entry for Pockets, and I've put away my craft supplies. I had a brainstorm for a new project and couldn't wait to get started. The only problem is, no matter how many times I pushed this irritating message aside from my main character, she wouldn't give up.
"I want to be a teenager! Fifteen is okay, but no younger!"
Fifteen? But...but... that's young adult! Oh, gosh, I felt like a newbie all over again. Middle grade characters have dimensions to them but they're not too complex. Middle graders act and react out of the ordinary to make the reader laugh, or cry, or even gasp; but there are limits. I like limits. I also write adult stories. Even my NaNaWriMo was for grown-ups. (the only good thing about it was the plot--it wasn't worth the effort to revise and I trashed it) But young adult demands more, I've heard that adolescents are picky and critical. Was I up to it?
"Okay," I told her, "I'll try, but don't be surprised if I shrink your world back to a twelve year old."
I swiped the dust off my “How to Write” books and flipped to the sections on creating characters. A couple I’ll mention here because after reading them I thought that maybe I can do this.
My refresher research began with Donald Maass’ book, Writing the Breakout Novel. “Conflict,” he writes in the section under inner conflict, “is the first principle of plot construction, and it is the underlying secret of great characters.” He goes on to say that “Fully rounded, three dimensional characters, have many sides, complex motives, and act in ways that surprise us.” After reading all the examples he gave from well known books, thinking about the teenagers next door and down the street, I began to understand what I needed to do if I was going to write for adolescents.
After completing a character map, my protagonist now has inner conflict, conflict in the home, conflict at school, but I also imbued her with inner strength and decisiveness, after all she doesn't give up. She’s not going to just sit there and let things happen to her, but she's no Wonder Woman either.
"I want a boyfriend."
Oh, yeah, the supporting players. I was reminded that the secondary characters should have their own story to tell, with their own likes and dislikes that determine what actions they take or how the protagonist reacts to them. In young adult you can delve into them making the sub-plots more important. My protagonist’s best friend can even disagree with her as well as have a definite opinion about her actions, just like best friends do in real life.
"Not Valerie, we're just like this."
Valerie's going to be fifteen, too.
In middle grade and younger works, parents can appear now and then with a problem or two, but mostly they are out of the picture. It will be a challenge for me to make them fully fleshed out--warts and all--to create the family dynamics surrounding my protagonist.
The old adage “You only have one chance to make a first impression” is emphasized in J.V. Jones article, Once Upon a Character, from a Writer’s Digest book, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing. Once the character is fully created the next thing the writer has to worry about is the first appearance. “The first appearance is crucial…the most important thing is that the reader come away with a strong impression of the character.” This first impression should make the reader want to continue reading to learn more.
I’d never thought of it as a “first impression” but there have been so many times I’ve started a book then put it down, disappointed, because the first impression of a few supposedly important characters were flat, uninteresting, and one dimensional. I didn't care about them or what was going to happen to them.
Finally, I would like to mention a book that is giving me the facts I need to create these complex characters. The book, Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, PHD, is filled with profiles of human behavior and personal traits intended to give writers insight when creating characters. She includes the gamut from personality types, psychological disorders, group influences, creating families, to many more things invaluable to writers. You want to know why a teenager is a cutter, it's in there. She covers everything!
I've never taken this long to create the characters. Usually a short sketch is enough to get started, but I'm actually enjoying this. While I was working on this blog in my draft folder this weekend I found something that will definitely add flavor and fun to my character maps! Picturing Your Characters, on Susan Fields' blog, has brought another dimension to character development. Tonight I'll be sifting through various magazines looking for my main characters. Go check out her character list, it'll make you smile.
"Griffin's cute...do you think..."
Just had to add a final comment. Susan suggested I google for pics instead of using magazines, I did, and wow! I found perfect candidates, inserted them in word docs, and am now filling out their characteristics under the pics. Thanks for another great tip, Susan.