Author of over 30 books, Rachel Vail, has created her own fair share of characters. As an author of young adult, middle grade, and picture books, Vail gave insight on how to create believable adolescent characters for all age groups. The following notes were taken from her breakout session at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference.
You Are Your Best Source…
- We often feel like our own lines are boring and obvious. But we are sometimes our own best source of material. Start with what you know.
- You contain multitudes!
- If you want, start with your own story. It’s a way in. A way to start writing.
Find a Core Part of Your Character to Guide You…
- A note Vail left on her computer for herself said “Don’t redeem Morgan.” This was an important point for her character. She didn’t want to redeem the “mean” character. However later, she replaced this note with the word “Shattered.” This seemed a deeper element of the character and why she was mean in the first place.
- If you find you are blocked it means you don’t know your character well enough.
- It could also mean you are avoiding a certain scene that you are afraid to write but the book probably needs you to write.
- If your character starts to use dialog where they say things like “I don’t even know what I want anymore,” the character is talking to YOU the author. The character lacks motivation and is asking you for some!
Use a “Character Form” to Develop Your Characters…
- A Character Form is a list of questions you ask your character so you can get to know them better and really understand who they are. These start out simple with what the character looks like and their mannerisms. But you want to be sure to get into more complex questions as well. Some character form question examples are:
- My name is _____________. Who named her/him? Who are they named after?
- Character age____________.
- How do I look? This is a good question to answer in the voice of the character. This is more than the physical appearance. This is the character’s opinion of his/her own appearance. This will really help you to find the character’s voice.
- I cannot stand….
- I love my mother, but…
- My friends are…
- I wish…
- If I could change one thing about myself it would be…
- What is my favorite food?
- I love to wear…
- The worst thing I ever did… (this is a great one to help you with plot!)
- I wish I was more…
- Don’t panic if your character surprises you when answering these questions. That’s a good thing! That means your character is coming to life.
- The story begins when the main character’s life is thrown off balance. Your job is to re-find balance for your character.
- A fully developed and realized character is not going to come out in the first draft. It will probably be somewhat boring and cliché. That’s okay. That’s what’s at the front of your head. Draft and re-draft!
- Astonish yourself! Your first draft is what you know. Re-writing will show you something new.
- Sometimes the deleting is the most important part of the story.
- When Edison invented the light bulb, he said he really invented 173 ways to NOT make a light bulb. You’ve got to go through many drafts.
- See your work with new eyes, again and again. (Re-writing)
- Don’t fall in love with your words or your characters. They may have to go.
- Fall in love with your story! Get lost in it, and then be ruthless! Then have some chocolate or scotch.
- Revise. This is the way to the truth.
Other Notes on Character Development:
- All the objects in our lives have history. Where did this scarf come from? Who gave you that ring?
- Young people are growing in plain sight, there is no place for them to hide, no cocoon. It’s hard.
- If you are not scared, then no bravery is required.
- 8th grade is the great and horrible year of “Who the Hell am I?!”
- What does your character NOT say? What is she holding in?
- Seeing the world through different eyes. That is the challenge of being a writer.
- Get to know your characters through how they speak.
On Writing For Kids…
- Be kind. That should be the message.
- Kids have a built in, shock-proof, BS detector.
- Kids come to books to find hope.
- Even if it knocks you around, leave kids with something to hold on to.
- Kids are constantly evolving, learning, and growing. They aren’t who they were yesterday.
General Writing Tips…
- As a writer you must have a creative self. But you must also be an independent businessman/woman. That is also your responsibility.
- Know everything, and then learn more!
- You are not just what you are, you are what you imagine.
Rachel Vail has written over 30 books for kids through teens. Her most recent include her trilogy for teens: Lucky, Gorgeous and Brilliant; and her novel for kids Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters.