Thursday, February 19, 2009

30 Characters show up to the Westside Schmooze to talk about "CHARACTER"

Doing our writing exercise on character
at the SCBWI Westside Schmooze, Feb. 11, 2009

Hi Everyone!

We had a great time on February 11th talking about Character.

Rita shared a great quote from Kurt Vonnegut to start us out:

“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

-From Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom From a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights, compiled and edited by Jon Winokur

Rita shares more about how this idea is helping her with her own writing here!

Showing what a characters wants (something, anything) is a great way to get readers invested--and to make that character memorable. Rita gave a friend a copy of Mo Willems’ picture book Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus a little while ago, and the friend's three-year-old daughter walked up, recognized the book, and said, “That’s a funny book! He wants to drive the bus.”

This book is probably the most obvious example of a character "wanting something," but it still blew her away.

We then challenged everyone at the schmooze to sum up what their character wants... and you can play along now. What does YOUR character want? Can you sum it up in a single sentence?

Most of the rest of the schmooze was devoted to talking about TECHNIQUES for developing and revealing Character.

Here are the top 15 ideas we all came up with:

1. Book Cover - Rita challenged us to imagine what the cover of our book will look like. What is the take-away you want readers to have about your main character? How does the character ultimately see themselves? What props would they be holding? This might give you a way to picture the all important first impression - how you introduce the character in your book.

2. Setting as a way to reveal character - try the exercise where you describe the exact same location but from the Point Of View of two different characters. (adapted from John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers") - And this got us into a discussion of weather as a metaphor!

3. The ACTOR approach - Eric Drachman shared that when actors are figuring out a scene, they boil it down to "I want to get (blank) from (blank) by (blank)ing them." Be able to do that for each of your characters in EACH scene of your story!

4. Homemade Frankenstein monsters and Imaginary Councils - Rita brought up how--in addition to working forwards and backwards from Plot--many of us draw from Life to create our characters. Hers are often Frankensteins of people she knows. After she identifies a character's defining traits, she thinks up three real-life people who share those traits and puts them on an imaginary council in her mind - to vote on what the character might do!

5. Casting Folder - Casting with Actors - Tamora Pierce mentioned at the SCBWI conference two years ago that she tears out magazine photos of people and models all the time when they intrigue her, and then when she needs to create a new character, she pulls out her "casting" folder for inspiration. Lee shared that he started doing that, but often it's not about what the model or person in the photo physically looks like - it's more the mood or the posture or attitude or some detail that captures the essence of the character he wants to create.

Along similar lines, Sara Wilson Etienne shared that at this past SCBWI New York Winter Conference, it was suggested we mentally cast known actors in the roles of our characters, to see what they might add to our pages.

6. Reveal Character (and theme!) through other characters - similar characters, opposite characters, and contradictions within characters. Rita gave the picture book Fancy Nancy as an example, in which the character Nancy's chief frustration is that the rest of her family is not at all fancy.

7. Therapy Questionnaire - Lee shared his favorite "take your character to therapy" questionnaire. He blogged about it, and has a copy of it for you, here. Ask your character all those uncomfortable questions, and watch them squirm! (And don't forget they can lie to the therapist, too!)

8. Paper Dolls / shoebox of stuff - You can create collages or mannequins (like Rachel Cohn) or, like Sara Wilson Etienne shared that she did for her book, assemble a box of special things (think "treasures") that your character might have in her room.

Rachel Cohn displays her "inner teen"
for all to see at the 2008 SCBWI-LA Summer Conference

9. Music - you could figure out what would be on your character's ipod playlist. Also, Music is a great way to set the tone and mood for what you're writing!

10. Using The Myers-Briggs personality test as a way to further define and understand your characters. Check it out!

11. Parent psychology websites often share what are the developmental concerns of children at different ages - Rita shared this great way to cross-reference your character's age and be inspired. Try some of the promising links here.

12. Old Journals - Graeme Stone spoke about looking at some old journals (yours or whoever else's you might be able to find online or elsewhere) to get in touch with the storm of emotions at the age of your characters.

13. What does your character wear? Edith Cohn talked about figuring out what your character wears - the brands, the outfits, what their distinct "look" would be. She also blogged about the Schmooze here!

14. Your character… somewhere new. Greg Pincus shared that he often will throw one of his characters into a scene in someone else's book (in his mind, of course) to see how his character would react. (i.e., if your character was Max in "Where the Wild Things Are," what would happen differently?

15. Get Obsessed. Karol Ruth Silverstein shared that figuring out what your character is passionate/obsessed about is a great way to breathe life into your whole story.

Westside Schmoozers delve into their characters!

Our writing exercise was a brief version of this one from "Creating Characters Kids will Love" by Elaine Marie Alphin (pg. 127) Go ahead and Play along NOW!

Brainstorm a list of the top 3 possible strengths your main character might possess. Now brainstorm a list of top 3 weaknesses the same character might have. Plan out ways that the strengths could make things difficult for your character and ways the weaknesses could work to the character’s advantage, and figure out where those things could happen in your story!

Then we reviewed our goals from last time and set new ones for next month! If you missed the meeting and want to put out your goal here in comments, we promise to only be encouraging!

Here's a list of the books on the craft of writing that were cited during the schmooze(with links!)

Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom From a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights, compiled and edited by Jon Winokur

The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children
, by Nancy Lamb. She talks about the first impressions characters make on readers on p. 123

Creating Characters Kids will Love” by Elaine Marie Alphin (pgs. 127, 131, 157)

John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers"

Fiction Books cited:

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher
by Bruce Coville
Don't let the pigeon drive the bus by Mo Willems
Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Fancy Nancy by Jane O'conner, ill. by Robin Preiss- Glasser
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

We hope to see you at next month's Schmooze - Wednesday March 11, 7pm, for our Picture Book Critique Night! (Please bring FIVE copies of up to four pages of a picture book manuscript in proper format for critique. You don’t have to bring something to participate: critiquing is a GREAT way to learn! But please do RSVP to and mention whether you’re bringing a manuscript or not. (Both fiction and non-fiction are welcome!) More schmooze details (location, etc...) here.

Thanks to everyone for making our schmooze so successful!

Rita and Lee

All photos in this post by Rita Crayon Huang


  1. Thanks for this awesome report, Lee, Rita, and all Schmoozers!
    An idea that might help make a character less generic is to ask yourself what would make that character memorable if you saw him or her among dozens of other kids. Is she the loudest? Is he reading a book while walking to class?
    Happy idiosyncrasies!

  2. Interesting. Linking this for my writing group.
    (Here via Greg @ GottaBook)

  3. Caroline, I like that - "what makes my character stick out?" is a great question...
    thanks for the idea... now we have 16!!!

  4. Very cool! I see you in that picture, Greg!

  5. Ooh, I like that tip, Caroline. I fell asleep thinking about it, and now know better how to tweak my character's look. Thanks!!

  6. Awesome recap, Lee! You and Rita always go the distance for your fellow schmoozers. Thank you so much!!!
    -Monique Ruiz