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“You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary.” ~Frederick Buechner

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Overview Character Development: Part Three: Internal Heart

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“The victory, however, comes only very gradually, for it relates directly to the slow and difficult process of accepting one’s self-knowledge and coming to peaceful terms with it.” Mollie Hunter


A story grows from the character’s emotional core. What? Why? The issue is not the event itself but how the character perceives and reacts to it. Makes his judgment and does this based on his own feelings.

So to dive deep into your character it’s important to know his motives, values, psychological profiles, and temperament. Tension builds as the barriers you put up against these four categories creates conflict and stretches your character from the inside out.

They don’t need to be dramatic or threatening but they must be real to their inner character and the immediate situation they are in. It’s a major decision for a two year old to decide to share his favorite toy with a playmate. It’s a major decision for a teen to be at a party that has gotten out of control.

So how do you get to know their hearts and what choices they will make. Get to know them. Here are some possibilities depending on what age you are writing for.

Write a short monologue for your character, whether they are talking to themselves or another. Do the conversation two ways; first showing something they care about, and then showing a negative side of themselves. What kind of words do they pick for either? For example, if your character has disrespect for lawyers they might use adjectives such as, he’s like a fox or a shark, instead of saying she has a sharp mind.

Write journal entries for them for a day or a week or a month.
Give your character a chronology and then from your character’s POV write a memory for each event: 1st day of kindergarten, 1st day of high school. Notice if any changes have occurred personality wise. Has a shy, quiet boy become a profane bully?

What do they dream about? What nightmares do they have?

When they have to pack their backpack for a day or a short trip what do they want inside?


The key to find internal patterns as plots is to find the ones that honestly take root in personal experience. F.A. Rockwell lists potential plot seeds from jokes, news, quotations, irritations, crisis, values, Bible stories, Cinderella, Faust, classics, and values. She recommends starting with clashing goals and then crisscrossing plots.

1.     Make a list of contrasting values:
Hope vs despair
Brotherly love vs bigotry
Courage vs Cowardice

2.     Once you choose the combination that interest you, then work it out in different ways, such as the four Davis versus Goliath possibilities. Will it end in tragedy or comedy? Depending on your mood, material, market, and purpose, Rockwell suggests four ways to develop a David and Goliath conflict, using real and fictional characters:

1. David conquers Goliath.            Erin Brockovich
2. David is conquered by Goliath. Billy Budd
3. David conquers Goliath but eventually becomes a new Goliath who threatens a new David. The Godfather
4. David is physically conquered by Goliath, but is undefeated morally and spiritually. Nelson Mandela

So look at your character’s situation or dilemma and ask what is their Goliath and what personality traits and heart values will help them overcome. In The Wild Things, temper tantrum Max remembers love and is able to be sorry for his behavior. In Shadow Spinner, Marjan’s compassion and gift of storytelling combine to save her mistress.

Action Steps:

            Below are some general “What if?” questions to get you started.

Share: What makes your character laugh?

Read deep, marcy

What If Questions

Who is the main Character?

Who or what is the antagonist?

Who are the other people in the story?

What does the main character want?

How important is it for him to get it?

What does the antagonist want?

How does he/it prevent the protagonist?

Results-initial action

Struggles lead to (crisis)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Overview Character Development: Part Two: External Details

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

“It is important to remember that character is plot, that the plot has to grow out of the characters, not be imposed upon them.” Jane Yolen

In order to grow this kind of depth it is necessary to know each key character thoroughly from the inside out, and to know each minor character for the primary detail they contribute to the story. Whether or not their personality, or moral character, will reflect or oppose their external portrait first impressions matter.

Whether we mean to or not we often begin to assess a new person from the moment we see them. In addition to the basic criteria of size and age and gender we consciously or unconsciously begin to make assumptions or at least make a surface impression based on external details.

These external tags can silently add atmosphere and focus with just a few specific phrases. What does their overall appearance or choice of clothes suggest—are they sloppy or neat? What make you think that?

How does their speech indicate level of education or geographic region? Are they friendly or do they scowl. What other possibilities do their mannerisms suggest? What about attitude—do they appear shy or quiet—what makes that difference. How do you indicate arrogance by tilt of head or demeanor?

Each character needs one or two of these tags to personalize themselves and your main protagonist and antagonist will need more.

Minor Characters

Use a single, easily, identifiable characteristic that is unique but not complex. Choose whether the character should be flat or round. For example a bus driver may simply be flat because he only drives the bus. However, if he has a stronger role then he, or she, might smile or crack a joke or warning to your character as they pay, which adds personality to them as a person. Conversely some minor characters may need to be made flat because they really do not contribute to the heart of the story.

Whether you will use all the detail information or not, each character needs at least a physical work-up for your own ‘visual’ impression. Is the cook young/old/from another culture? Why might any of those versions matter or add to the plot?

Prepare to be surprised as you write. Unexpected characters might show up and might become minor characters instead of a flat one, or vice versa. Once you have a sense of who your character is then you can use a chart or other methods to build up a sense of who they are. Barely any of this will go into your story plot but you will know them thoroughly, as well as a sibling or friend. And because you do know them so well you will be able to pick out a telling characteristic exactly when needed.

Remember that real character have good and bad qualities. And they change. Pippi is not considered to be a real child by some because she never changes throughout all her stories.

We’ll look at internal details next week but we must be able to identify the emotional core in your character.  Choose a single core quality to focus on at first. This is where the character will change and it comes about as a result of what happens in the story. For example a clumsy dog saves the day. But to begin with the reader first only sees a dog getting into trouble because of his clumsiness. Later thought that same clumsiness causes a victory. It’s a showing external key that grows the plot.

The key is to provide convincing motivation for their behavior, whether helpful or destructive or contradictory. The protagonist doesn’t need to be likeable, but must be someone the reader can identify with, or at least be sympathetic to. Remember even the ‘bad’ characters believe they’re right. Their external details can be a mirror of their personality or a disguise or a hint of another possibility.

Action Steps:

            Develop the look of four characters using each of the methods below for each one. Choose two major characters and two minor ones.

1.Brainstorm from scratch using a character chart and fill in the basics such as height, weight, hair, skin tone, age and other basic facts.

2. Cut out pictures from magazines and write a background for them. Or look for a person that looks like your idea.

3. Take two people you knew or know. Make a list of their characteristics. Now make a single character mix and matching from their attributes. Reverse their personality.

4. Or take someone past or present. Change their age, their sex and completely reverse their appearance style.

5. Bonus: Sit in a public place for about five minutes and see whom you notice first. Write down the physical or action characteristics that caught your attention.

Share: Which version did you find most creative.

Read deep, marcy

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Overview Character Development: Part One: Personality Lens

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults

Character Development
            Here’s an exercise I’ve often used in workshops. It’s always interesting to see what a variety of perspectives this simple prompt generates. It’s as if everyone takes a verbal snapshot but their lens’ captures different aspects.

            1. Make a simple quick list writing down a character’s gender—age—build—hair (type & color) and core quality, such as honesty, hot temper, shyness, curious etc.

2. Take a separate sheet and across the top write: Name (leave blank)….. is waiting. In a few sentences describe where, attitude, how character is dressed, why or for what character is waiting.

3. Then go a few lines down and write: if you changed this character into an animal what would you choose?

4. Now take the first sheet and pass it to the person on your right. Using the sheet you just received write the paragraph exercise according to the list you’ve now been given. Hand the sheet back.

5. Compare your first interpretation with the other version. Are they similar? Different?

This is just a beginning idea for a character.  Notice that each person can have a different ‘take’ on a character. And that's fine. The reader needs to bring his/her own connections to the story.

However if a particular characteristic is vitally important then remember that one feature must be clearly established. Oscar on Sesame Street is a grouch. If he doesn’t act grouchy then we know something is wrong.

We need to build characters two ways: externally (next blog) and internally (the week after). The most important thing is to get to know your characters inside and out. They are to be characters and not caricatures.

Real characters have good and bad qualities. Pippi is not a ‘real’ child because she never changes. We’ll also look at some classics in a few weeks. It’s important to identify the emotional core in your character. Start by choosing a single core quality to focus on. This is the key point at which the character will change and it comes about as a result of what happens in the story. For ex, a clumsy dog who overcomes his weakness and saves the day.
The key is to provide convincing motivation for any character’s behavior, whether helpful or destructive or contradictory. The protagonist doesn’t always need to be likeable, but must be someone the reader can identify with or at least be sympathetic to. In Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Max begins in a temper tantrum and creates “havoc”.

Remember even the ‘bad’ characters believe they’re right. So as you develop your main characters look at them from all camera angles behavior wise.

Action Steps:

      Return to the journal sheet and do this prompt from your character’s perspective. Keep in mind that every thing you can write for a journal entry for yourself can also be written as a journal entry for your character.

  1. If you had to choose a color to describe you today what would it be? 
  1. Then write a brief description of why?
  1. Now write a few lines about whether this is a color you like or don’t or etc. i.e. how do you feel about feeling this way today?
  1. If you had to share this ‘color’ on your first day of school would you feel good or nervous? 
  1. Set up a journal for your main character and whenever you have a few minutes to brainstorm—write up a memory or question from their perspective.

Share: How would you personally feel if you were your character sharing on the first day of school?

Read deep, marcy

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