Character Questionnaire: Getting to the Guts of Character

whoareyouThe other week I wrote a guest post about a film that gets away with not developing its protagonist. However, that tends to be the exception to the rule. Normally, it’s a good idea to spend some time developing your characters. You want to know as much as you can about your main and supporting characters and see what makes them tick.

A great way to get started is with a character questionnaire. There are dozens of these on the internet, and I’ve listed a few below. Questionnaires can range for simple characteristics (hair color, favorite song), to detailed life-histories of your characters. I like to scan these forms for questions that gets me excited. It’s always different from character to character, one question might be relevant to my protagonist, while another gets me thinking in a new way about the villain.

Over time, I’ve found that there are a few questions I like to go back to over and over again. For me, these are the ones that cut through the fluff and get to the real guts of my character.

Favorite questions that help to develop character in regards to story and plot:

  1. What is your character’s controlling belief?
  2. What is your character’s biggest fear?
  3. What is your character’s great weakness?
  4. What does your character need?
  5. Who is your character hurting at the opening of the story?
  6. What is your character’s moral need (this will relate to who they are hurting)?
  7. What is the crisis or problem your character is in at the opening of the story (before the inciting incident or any other events occur)?
  8. What is the “ghost,” wound, or hole in your character’s heart? (Something that happened in the past that affects their actions today and may or may not be related to their weakness/fear).
  9. What is your character’s obsession? Why are they obsessed with it?
  10. What is your character’s external goal?
  11. What is your character’s self revelation? What do they learn at the end of the story?
  12. What does your character believe or think they know at the opening of the story?
  13. How is your character wrong about what they believe at the opening of the story?
  14. How does the story world reflect your character’s needs, desires, fears, or challenge their weaknesses?
  15. What is your character’s Inciting Incident? (This is an event that connects need and desire, and jump starts the hero out of paralysis and into action). What would cause them to act?
  16. Who are your character’s allies? And what do those characters want for themselves?
  17. Who are your character’s opponents? Who wants to stop the hero from getting what he wants and why? What does the opponent want? Is he/she competing for the same thing?
  18. What are the opponent’s values and how do they differ from the hero’s?

Favorite questions that help to get to the heart of your character:

  1. How does your character relate to other human beings? Why?
  2. What’s his/her relationship with their family (mom, dad, siblings), friends, co-workers?
  3. What/who does your character love? Why?
  4. What/who does your character hate? Why?
  5. What does your character view as his/her greatest failure?
  6. What does your character view as his/her greatest success?
  7. In what way does your character feel the world has wronged them?
  8. What’s your character’s greatest strength? And weakness?
  9. Who does your character think they are better than?
  10. Who/what do they think they will never live up to?
  11. What traits does your character value/respect in others?
  12. What causes your character shame?
  13. Who does your character trust?
  14. What are your character’s religious and political views? And what affect do they have on their actions/way of life?
  15. If your character could change one thing about themself, what would it be?
  16. What does your character lie about when they meet other people?
  17. What’s your character’s motto?

Other fun questionnaires to check out:

Breaking the Rules of Character Development

All Is Lost PosterOne of the ten commandments of writing is that you must develop your characters! And yet, over the weekend, I saw the Robert Redford film All Is Lost, and it breaks this rule unabashedly. In fact, the story is stronger as a result.

How is that possible?!

My discussion of how the film defies character development is on Ellar Cooper’s blog today: Ellar Out Loud. It’s part of a fabulous Dystropian guest-blog series that she’s sponsoring this month, guaranteed to be full of awesome posts on writing and craft. Be sure to check it out!

Read my guest post: Breaking the Rules of Character Development

Perfecting Your YA Voice (Part 2)

In Part 1, Editor Krista Marino explained how YA Voice is related to diction, perspective, dialog, interior monologue, and character. In this second section she explains what makes a young adult voice unique and different from an adult writing voice.

Let’s Talk about the Teen/YA Voice in Particular:

  • YA is specific in terms of voice.
  • YA is teen experience, outlook, and their limited life experiences.
  • YA is about teen beliefs, likes and dislikes, etc.
  • Think about how small your life was when you were a teenager. Remember when you believed in Santa? What did you believe when you were in high school? Did you think you were going to marry your high school boyfriend?
  • An adult looking back on the teen experience is an adult book.
  • “When you’re young everything feels like it’s the end of the world.” – movie quote. Teens have no reference to know that things will get better in their lives, where as adults bring life experiences with them.
  • Teens are not making stupid decisions. They are making their decisions because they have only been on the planet for 16 years and don’t have any life experience.
  • Teens have nothing else to compare their experiences to.
  • When you are writing you need to erase the worldliness you’ve experienced over the years.
  • Your protagonist can’t be simple.
  • Every teen is questioning how other teens view them.
  • Your character must evolve. Voice can change as a character grows and learns over the course of the book. Voice must change with the evolution and movement of the book.

Exercises to Get to Know Your Character:

  • Exercise: List three character traits about your protagonist (i.e. sassy, romantic, uptight) then push yourself to go deeper and find out who they really are under those traits.
  • Exercise: Write two pages that tell you something new about your character. These pages do not need to go into the manuscript. See what they will tell you.
  • Exercise: Go to a public place and eavesdrop on teens. Write down their conversations exactly as you hear them. Now try to use that conversation in a scene you are writing. Watch how your characters interact.

Telling about Character in the Writing:

  • Weave info about your character into the story, but make it invisible.
  • In the writing insinuate how a character looks without listing everything they are wearing. Pick a particular trait to embody a greater image of the character. Example: A character wearing skull rings.
  • You can’t assume the reader knows what is going on inside your character. You need to clue them in. Is the character tired? Excited?
  • Layer your characters actions. Stomping could mean a character is angry, but they could also be embarrassed. Sometimes more is more.
  • It’s better for someone to tell you to cut than add.
  • Beware of too much telling, it will sound like you (the author) are speaking to the reader rather than the character.

Krista Marino is a senior editor at Delacort Press where she edits and acquires young adult and middle grade novels. Books she has edited include King Dork, The Necromancer, The Maze Runner, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

Perfecting Your YA Voice (Part 1)

Editor Krista Marino spoke at the 2011 SCBWI LA Conference and shared the following insight on how to perfect your YA voice:

There are Two Types of Voice:

  • Authorial Voice – this is when you know a book is by a certain author. For example you know when you’re reading a John Irving or Meg Cabot book.
  • Narrative Voice – This is the voice invented by the author and the voice of the protagonist.

What is Voice?

  • Voice is illusive and hard to define.
  • Marino’s says voice is made up of: diction, perspective, characterization, and dialog.

Diction as Voice:

  • Diction is vocabulary choices and a style of expression.
  • Think word choice!
  • Marino used an example from The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. She pointed out how the author does not use contractions in the novel to reflect the “old fashioned” sensibility of the town/people, but when a scene started to pick up in pace the author would begin to use contractions (Cannot vx. Can’t).
  • Focus on your character’s distinct vocabulary or expression. This doesn’t mean slang. This will reveal how the protagonist relates to the world.
  • Does your character use cultural references (X-men, animal planet) to define how they relate to the world? This is part of his or her diction.
  • Beware of leaning on cultural references too much for your voice. That will become a crutch. Take a look at Frank Portman’s King Dork as an example of teen voice that feels current without using specific cultural references.

Perspective as Voice:

  • This is the mental view of the character and how it affects the storytelling.
  • This is not point of view.
  • How does the limited teen experience influence how they view the world and the way they speak? For example look at the movies BIG and 17 Again. In Big you have a kid in an adult body. How does this “adult” act and speak to reveal they are really a kid? Or in 17 Again you have an adult in a kid’s body, how does action/speech reveal that they are really an adult with an adult way of thinking?
  • How does the setting (historical fiction or futuristic) change the experiences of your character?

Character as Voice:

  • Voice can convey info about character, age, gender, hobbies, religion, motivation, ambitions, looks, etc.
  • You must know everything about your protagonist.
  • Everything in the book with be filtered through the protagonist.
  • Character driven books are amazing because the character feels real and you (the reader) will follow them anywhere. The secret is to have an amazing character and a plot to sell to a larger audience.
  • Think about the protagonist in your favorite book and write down reasons why you like them. Why did they come to life for you? Was it their speech? Actions?
  • A solid 3D character will come to life and have a believable voice.
  • You need to know your characters and you want to know them emotionally.

Dialog as Voice:

  • This is about the verbal exchange in the book (not interior monologue).
  • Dialog directly reflects a character’s voice and personality.
  • This is about more than just the words.
  • Dialog needs to feel real, not like on a sitcom.
  • Dialog doesn’t exist just hanging there in space. If they just say something but there is no context for it, the reader won’t understand who they are and what they are thinking.

Interior Monologue as Voice:

  • Interior monologue is what the character is thinking and gives context to the dialog.
  • The #1 thing that Krista Marino finds is missing in manuscripts is interior dialog or interior monologue.
  • Interior monologue is important, if not most important to conveying the feelings, reactions, and judgments of your character.
  • Interior monologue shows a character’s perception of a scene and their feelings.
  • Without interior monologue we lose the inner emotional stakes of the scene.
  • All dramatic irony is lost without interior monologue.
  • You need interior monologue to create empathy, rather than having the reader observe and make guesses about the character.
  • You loose back-story, sarcasm, and emotion without interior monologue.
  • We always want to know what a character (on the page) is thinking.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 – Coming Soon!

Krista Marino is a senior editor at Delacort Press where she edits and acquires young adult and middle grade novels. Books she has edited include King Dork, The Necromancer, The Maze Runner, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters

School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters was the title of author Rachel Vail’s keynote speech at the SCBWI LA 2010 Conference. In it she shared her process, writing for middle grade readers, and how to get inside your characters head. Notes from her speech are as follows:

Why Do We Read?

  • A book is more than a story well told. It needs to have humor and heart.
  • The theme of my writing career has been: What does love require of us?

My Writing Day…

  • Typing
  • Making Tea
  • Wandering around and imagining
  • Making more tea

Books That Really Influenced Vail:

  • Of Mice and Men
  • Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing

What is Middle Grade?

  • Middle grade is the age group of 3rd through 7th graders.
  • Most middle grade books are structured like a one-act play.

What is the Middle Grade Dilemma?

  • Middle grade is the moment you emerge into the world and you discover that your family is weird.
  • It’s when you wonder if there are others out there like you.
  • Life or death moments are a dime a dozen in middle grade. Those feeling knock you down. Your bones ache you are growing so fast.
  • Little kids harbor secrets and worries that adults are not privy to.
  • Being brave is not the same as being fearless.
  • Remember that one somebody who took you seriously when you were a child? (Vail shared a story about her uncle who was the only one who wanted to know the rain cycle, which she had just learned in school and was excited to share with someone).

The Impossible Task of Writing…

  • Writing a book opens a window.
  • Writing a book is like building a sky scraper from the top down. You build, and then tear it down. You build again, and tear it down again.

Getting Inside the Head of Your Character…

  • How do we become someone else? We aren’t all memoirists.
  • Start with what you know.  J.K.Rowling probably didn’t live in a cupboard as a child, but she may have lived in a metaphorical one. I’m sure she knew the loneliness and dreamed of more.
  • Mine and re-purpose. I write for a girl who is like me but not like me.
  • Try speed writing. Write for ten minutes on your dad’s car. Go!
  • Voice sometimes comes later, after many drafts.
  • We have to listen to our characters as much as we do our own kids. It’s just as hard.

Finding Your Story…

  • Michelangelo once said that when he was sculpting he was “chipping away at the stone to find the sculpture inside.” It’s the same thing for writing only we have to barf out our first draft to get a stone.

Great Notes from Rachel Vail’s Breakout Sessions:

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.

Seeing Your Characters: Creating Adolescent Charaters From the Inside Out

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.

Writer’s Block is a Character Problem…

  • 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.

First Drafts and Brutal Rewriting…

  • 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.

How Acting Can Help You To Develop Character

Before becoming a writer, author Rachel Vail, studied acting and theater. Today she may not grace the stages of Broadway but her numerous books showcase her ability to “get into character”, or more accurately create them. During her breakout session at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference she explained how it might be worth your wild to check out an acting class.

Things I Learned About Character From Acting Class:

  • You must know everything about your character. Where were they the moment before the scene you are writing? How did they sleep last night? This will affect the scene and how the character behaves. (This was an acting lesson Vail learned before going on stage).
  • What does your character want? What does your character enter the scene wanting? An actor friend of Vail’s told her that the way in which he keeps scenes fresh night after night of doing the same show is by changing what the character wants as they enter the scene. “Each time I do the show I have different motivations.”
  • As hard as it can be to get into character, it can be just as hard to get out of it.

How Body Language Develops Character:

  • Before I can know a character, I need to know them emotionally and physically.
  • All characters walk from a different part of their body. This is called the center of the body. Some people are centered at the forehead and walk with their heads down. Others are centered from their chests and have a confident walk. Drunks often walk with their shoulders first. How does your character walk and move through space?
  • For a book about a ballerina, Vail learned all about how ballerinas hold themselves (posture, walk, etc.) They often hold their hair back. They don’t cross their legs. These small physical effects changed the whole way in which Vail saw the character.

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.

Your Voice is Your Voice: Keeping It Real

An amazing voice is the number one “must-have” on every agent and editors list. So what is this odd and illusive thing known as voice? How do you find it? What does it sound like? Why is it so gosh darn important? Scholastic editor Jennifer Rees (The Hunger Games, Purge) spoke on this exact subject at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. The following is her two cents on why you’ve got to have a knock-out voice and how to develop it.

The Importance of Voice…

  • Voice is the most powerful and prized possession in a writer’s tool box.
  • Voice is that amazing thing that taps you on the shoulder (the character) and asks you to come with them on a journey.
  • Great voice is not reserved for fiction alone. It can also be in non-fiction.

What is Voice?

  • When writing you are concerned about: What is the story? How do you tell it? What are you conveying? How do you maintain audience interest? Voice is what makes all of these things POWERFUL!
  • Voice is what the author has in common with all of their books. Rees sees a good voice as a sign that the author will be able to write other great books too.
  • Your voice is you. It is a reflection of you.  And you must write the story that only you can write.
  • You have a unique view of the world. Who is in your world and what do they have to say about it?
  • Voice is the writer’s presence on the page. (About writing with voice by Tom Ramano)
  • Voice is not concrete or tangible and yet it is the most important part of the book.
  • Voice is the hook that gets us interested from page one. It determines the audience and points back to the author.

Voice Example…

  • Complete this sentence:   When I was young in the…
  • The way in which you complete that sentence tells us about your voice. Everyone will complete it differently.

Voice and Character:

  • Voice is often talked about in the creation of your character. What is it the character notices? What is it that your character leaves out?
  • Characters need flaws. But what is their surprise? What will keep them on their toes?
  • In the book Purge it speaks to a specific topic (bulimia), it’s edgy, and the tension is high. There’s a lot going on in the book. But the surprise of the book is the humor. It’s a grim topic with a funny spin.
  • A voice will change depending upon the audience for a comment. For example if you quit your job. The way you tell this story will be different if you are talking to your best friend or talking to a future employer.
  • Character and voice are so interconnected! If the voice doesn’t work – is it fixable? It can point to a thin character. It might me a character that you (the writer) are not connecting with and thus the reader is not connecting with as well.
  • The voice of the narrator is not necessarily the voice of the book. There is more to it.

What I Learned As a Bookseller about Voice…

  • Rees spent years watching how customers would buy a book. Everyone will open the first page and decided if they will buy the book or not. That is the big ticket! This is stronger than the photos or back flap. It’s about the voice they see on the first page.

Common Pit-Falls in Voice:

  • Teen Speak – don’t go overboard with your jargon. Jargon often has little or nothing to do with voice. Voice is only believable if the character would actually say it.
  • Uneven Voice – When you are not sure how to say something. The voice seems to wobble. Strong voice plunges forward despite knowing where one is going, or how to say it.
  • Describing everything – use of excessive language and detail bout almost everything is a problem. Choose what is interesting about the specific place.
  • Lack of Voice in your Query – you want to infuse your query and synopsis with personality! Otherwise it is boring.

On Developing Your Voice:

  • Be fearless with language. Write about what you are emotionally moved by!
  • Say the rude-truth. Don’t be afraid.
  • The choice between first and third person are a personal preference, and reflects the type of story you are telling. First person tends to be easier to start with when you begin writing.
  • When you find your voice! Send it to me! (Rees)

Specific Books Discussed in Rees’ Presentation:

  • Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
  • Wish I Might and Sunny Holiday by Coleen Murtagh Paratore
  • When I was Young In the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
  • The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
  • Purge by Sarah Darer Littman
  • Finally by  Wendy Mass
  • Owen and Mzee by Craig Hatkoff

About Jennifer Rees and What She Looks for in a Submission:

  • Voice is the #1 thing that Rees responds to in book submissions.
  • Hook me on the first page with an unstoppable voice!
  • The voice of Katniss (The Hunger Games) was so powerful that Rees missed 3 subways and a bus while reading the submission.
  • Rees will read a submission until she gets bored and then stop.
  • She loves the work of Anne Lamott
  • Beware of “voice copies.” She gets a lot of these in her submissions. These are books that are copying the voice of another book on her list. This happened with the book Clementine. (Clementine is also one of her favorite books – ever!)
  • Rees has readers who go through her submissions.
  • She is looking for literary books! If you have one, send it to her!
  • The new book Purge by Sarah Derra Litman is one she is really excited about.
  • Rees does not work on series books.
  • If you want to query her you can send your submission to 557 Broadway, NY NY 10012. Write SCBWILA10 on it and mention that you were at her session. Just sent a query letter! If she requests the book then send a cover letter with the manuscript and include a SASE.
  • If you are an author/illustrator she likes to see a book dummy.
  • Feel free to send a SASE Postcard if you would like to know she got your submission.
  • Great non-fiction book that she likes is Chasing Lincolns Killer
  • Looking for: out of the box fantasy, and middle grade boy books.

The Difference Between Scholastic and Scholastic Press:

  • Scholastic publishes books like Harry Potter, Clifford, 39 Clues, The Magic School Bus. I didn’t work on any of those!
  • Scholastic press is the literary side of Scholastic. We publish things like: The Invention of Hugo Caberet, Rules, Drum Girls Dang Pies, and Mt. Anderson.
  • Out of the Dust was a book that really influenced Rees and Scholastic Press published it (before she was there.)

Editor Jennifer Rees

Books Jennifer Rees has Edited:

  • Picture Books: Chicken and Cat by Sara Varon, Swim! Swim! By Lerch, Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again by Craig Hatkoff, and Jibberwillies at Night by Rachel Vail.
  • Middle Grade: Sunny Holiday and Sweet and Sunny by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, Forget Me Not and Wish I Might by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, 11 Birthdays and Finally by Wendy Mass, Elvis and Olive by Stephanie Watson, and Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson.
  • Young Adult: Sellout by Ebony Joy Wilkins, Purge and Life After by Sarah Darer Littman, After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick, Everlasting by Angie Frazier, Forever Crumb by Philip Reeve, and The Hunger Games trilogy by Susanne Collins.

Learn More about Rees at:

Jennifer Rees got her start in children’s books as a children’s bookseller in Ohio. Since then, she’s found great joy in working as an editor at Scholastic Press, where she acquires and edits fiction and nonfiction picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels. A sampling of projects she’s edited include The Hunger Games Series, Winter’s Tail, 11 Birthdays, Purge, and Girls and Dangerous Pie.

Seven Ways to Develop Compelling Characters

Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. In her keynote speech she shared the following tips on how to develop your characters.

Seven Ways to Create Compelling Characters:

1) What role will my character play? I always start with plot when writing a book, then I think about the role in which my character will need to play in this story. That role is essential to creating your character. Do they need to grow into that role? Is it something inherent about their character to begin with? Etc. This is a keystone to build your character from.

2) There’s a tarantula on your head. What are you gonna do? I need to be with my characters for awhile to learn how they will react. I discover who my character is through writing dialog, actions, and internal thoughts about who he/she is. Put your character in different situations and see how they will surprise you.

3) What if? What if? This is a book full of great questions that will help you to get to know your character. Answer the questions for your character.  A lot of authors also use a character form or questionnaire with a list of questions they have created. (Examples of character forms can be found at: Elfwood Character Creation Form or Character Development Form).

4) Invented characters vs. real humans. In a novel it is not possible to create a character with as many layers as a real human. The reader is going to end up doing a lot of the work themselves, that’s okay. The reader will build from their own experience to create depth for your characters. But you have to show the reader the way.

5) You know, like, dude! It’s just how I talk, duh! Look for speech mannerisms in your characters. For example, I have a friend who always starts a sentence with: “You know what…” and always follows it with something angry, “…this sucks.” Etc. Some people always start sentences with “I have to tell you…” How does your character start sentences? What tags do they put at the end of sentences? This will help each of your characters to sound unique.

6) Don’t invite the circus! Don’t overload the reader with a circus of exotic talkers. You want each character to stand out and be unique, but if everyone has crazy lingo and weird phrases, the audience is going to get tired. No to mention the in-authenticity of too much jargon!

7) I could have danced all night! Movement is a tip off to character. Use body language. Simple examples include: She rolled her hands. or Her eye twitched when she was nervous. Why do people touch one another? Some do it  to show dominance, others just have a touchy feely nature. Another character might twirl their hair while they are plotting. Show us actions! In a movie we see all these actions, but in a book you need to remind the reader.

Gail Carson Levine is the author of seventeen books for children. After nine years of manuscript rejection, many writing classes, and enthusiastic membership in SCBWI, her first published book, Ella Enchanted, won a Newbery honor in 1998. She blogs about writing at

The Writing Gym: Open Mike Night

Last night I went to a local coffee shop’s open mike night on a complete whim. I expected to hear mumbling music, bad poetry, and caffeine induced performance art. Yes, such amateur excitement did deliver, but what I didn’t expect was for the evening to turn into a writing exercise. One after one, crazy characters kept walking through the door of the coffee house and I couldn’t help myself from jotting down a line or two about each eccentric person I saw. Before I knew it I was writing about half the people in the room.

Thinking about character introductions and making your characters pop off the page, this struck me as a great exercise in painting a picture in only a few sentences. So I invite you all to go to your local open mike nights (or just hang out at a coffee shop) and write a line or two about all the amazing and individual people you see.

The Unique and Bizarre Attendees of Jones Coffee Roaster’s Open Mike Night:

  • A sixty-year-old Salvador Dali knockoff in his brown suit and black beret, stands to the side with harmonica and guitar ready. He’s been waiting all day for his five minutes of open mike madness. Later, when the crowds have dispersed I see him rooting through the flowerpots. He digs out a succulent and tucks it in his pocket, dirt, roots, and all.
  • A bevy of twenty-something beauties pout and gossip over double soy non-fat dinner drivel.
  • Fifteen-year-old Snow White look-a-like left the dwarfs at home and brought her entourage.
  • Hurley and Jack Black’s love child sits on a brown suitcase wearing sneakers without socks and rocking a narwhal t-shirt.
  • Leopard-print head-banded brunette clutches her designer bag and wonders why her friends brought her here. Her cell phone is perched in hand, ready to dial M for Mayday.
  • A beat-box rappin’ hipster wears a mini velvet fedora and a three inch tiny tie.
  • At the mike is a cute blond with a flower barrette, sings like a sweet country Fiona Apple.
  • Stylin’ New York Nancy stirs her drink, she’s super cool and put together with her silver hoops and sideways smile.
  • At the counter is tweaker chick and her road rage boyfriend.
  • Navy blue suspenders hold up the pants of an old Chinese guru, hiding out under matching blue beanie.
  • The coffee whisperer checks the grinder and stands watch, face stern as he guards the beans.
  • Pompom tassels bounce on the purse of the type of woman who keeps your local yarn store in business.
  • Fifty-year-old mannish-Marilyn in stripped carpenter chords struts past, her hot pink bra strap peeks out from under her scalloped tee.
  • Clean cut college freshman does a double take as plane Jane transforms into a guitar goddess.
  • Long haired fisherman type surprises the crowd with a classical creation on a bowed psaltery, an odd stringed instrument that he quickly informs us all is part of the piano family.
  • A blue jelly-bean of a man rocks out on his bongos and smiles happily behind horn rimmed glasses.
  • In short shorts and white Keds, the nineteen year old stringy blond in front of me bats her eyelashes at the friend she doesn’t realize is gay.

It was quite a night! Feel free to share some of your fun character descriptions in the comments! Happy writing.

This rockin' cup chandelier was at Jones'.