Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Carolyn Mackler’s Four Keys to Creating Characters (SCBWI Post!)

Well, I am officially back from SCBWI! It was awesome. Being surrounded by all the inspiration and learning so much was incredible. And children's book authors and illustrators are some of the funniest people I've ever met. I'll post some photos and a general conference review (including overall conference tips) in another post, but I thought I would continue posting notes from the conference sessions I attended since I have enough to make days and days worth of posts.

One of my favorite sessions was Carolyn Mackler's breakout session on creating characters that come to life. Not only is Carolyn Mackler totally adorable and down-to-earth, but she gave some great advice on how to create distinct voices for each of your characters (this came in particular handy when she was writing her novel Tangled, which has four distinct characters, and which I will be giving away a SIGNED copy of on the blog at some point in the next month. I have epic, epic contests in store, people.)

So, here without further ado, are Carolyn Mackler's four keys to creating characters:
  1. Think about the character's quirks. Every person on the planet has a quirk. Fun Heather fact! (Which is also potentially gross) I chew my cuticles when I get anxious or nervous. Not my nails, my cuticles. Little mannerisms like that are inherent in all of us - and since your characters are people too, they need to have quirks as well. Who is your character? What do they do? If you think you're running low on material, head somewhere and people watch - this can be a great way to  find some new quirks to give to a character. Alternatively, think about some people you know now, or people you knew when you were in high school. What were their quirks? Did they collect bobble-heads? Nod whenever someone else was speaking? Those are the kinds of things you can incorporate.
  2. Nail their specific language. When I was in high school, I had an excellent biology teacher. Seriously. The best (and only halfway decent) science teacher I'd ever had in my life. Unfortunately, she ended up being the butt of a lot of jokes in the hallway because she said, "Mmkay?" at the end of almost every sentence - and this was right when South Park first skyrocketed to popularity, with an annoying guidance counselor character who had the same unfortunate habit. It's sad that her speech issue overshadowed her incredible knowledge (at least at first until us smart-ass teenagers wised up), but my point here is that people have language ticks - and so should your character. Does your character talk in questions or statements? Do they swear or not? Do they say "I mean" or "like"? (Because some teens say those things, but not all of them do. And some adults, like ME, are perpetually stuck in our teen years and also say those things.) To really test your language, read your book aloud so you can see the rise and fall of the dialogue and how often you're repeating words.
  3. Research. For Tangled, Carolyn Mackler had to write her first male POV ever. She felt pretty daunted by the task, so as she was giving talks she would say, "By the way, I'm looking for some male teens to talk to for some research for my new book." And at one of her presentations, a guy who was the spitting image of one of her characters came up to her and offered to chat. She set up a series of phone interviews and they chatted for hours. Carolyn asked how he viewed his body, what music he liked, what he did when he worked out, what he thought of his friends - everything she could think of to get into his head and create a unique and truthful character. Another one of her characters is an actress and goes on an audition, so she was able to get permission to sit in on an audition process, and afterward she interviewed a teen actress. All of her research - because fiction books do require research - added to the authenticity of the voice in her novel.
  4. Ask questions about your character. Get to know them and get inside their head. I talked about this a little yesterday when I discussed Rachel Vail's voice workshop. But think about things like, what is the first thing they do in the morning? What does the inside of their closet look like? What do they keep hidden in their underwear drawer? Who would the character contact if something good happened, and what would that good thing be? What do they do when they’re anxious? What are they proud of? What are they ashamed of? How do they feel about their family? What is their family status? Carolyn likes to go for walks to get her character questions answered. I prefer drives. You find whatever works for you, as long as you make it happen.
And remember, when you're thinking about character, that it's not just your main characters that need to have depth and quirks and language - it's all characters.


  1. I can't remember if I told you this or not, but I did one of those word bubble things with my ms and the biggest/most used word was LIKE.

    I was pretty embarrassed when I saw that. :-\

  2. Oooh, I heard great things about this breakout and was so sad to have missed it. Thanks for the recap--I'm bookmarking this :)

    We must hang out again in real life sometime! xo

  3. Woo hoo! I was visiting so I could link you to my blog for tomorrow, but apparently I hit pay day. You did an amazing job with your recaps, Heather. :D

  4. More specific helpful information! Adding this to my most worthy writing articles on characters! thanks - now to follow that link on voice...


Loved it? Hated it? Either way, I want to hear what you thought!

Copyright 2009

See Heather Write
. Powered by Blogger
Blogger Templates created by Deluxe Templates
Wordpress by Wpthemesfree