Friday, February 3, 2012

Creating Believable Characters

Let’s face it. It’s been a while since we’ve been in middle school, so how can we ensure that we are creating authentic characters in our middle grade novels? In this interview, author Winnie Mack shares some insight!

Do you often start with the character or the story?

It depends on what I’m working on. I used to write “chick lit” for adults, as Wendy French, and most of those novels began with the story. I currently write Middle Grade fiction for boys as W.C. Mack (, and because both my Canadian and American publishers like books involving sports, I tend to start with story there as well. But when it comes to writing for Middle Grade girls, I always start with the character.

How do you “get to know” your main characters?

I kind of let them drift in and out of my head for a bit before I start writing. I think about who their family members are, what kind of friends they have and what they enjoy inside and outside of school. I think about what drives them crazy or makes them happy and I come up with plot points that could create some highs and lows for them within the story. Sometimes I’ll attach a certain actor or actress’s appearance to the character, so I have a mental picture when describing them.

In your novel, After All, You’re Callie Boone, how did you create a realistic and interesting character that tween readers could relate to? What kinds of social markers or language do you find to be prevalent in their lives?

I relied on personal experience, to a degree. I thought about some of the most hurtful things I’d witnessed or felt at that age and decided that the loss of a best friend was near the top of the list. That gave me an opportunity for Callie to feel confused, angry and alone so she could then work her way through all of those emotions. I also relied on my own experience in that Callie has a grandmother at home and my grandparents moved in with us when I was ten years old . Like Callie, I sometimes felt caught between enjoying the fact that they were there and wishing my family was more conventional or “normal”.

As far as language goes, I probably went over the top with Callie’s “Oh, fishsticks” tag line, but I do think kids tend to favour a small handful of phrases and words. I spent the afternoon with an eleven year old boy and couldn’t believe how often he said “awesome”. It had to be at least ten times per hour!

What should writers keep in mind when creating antagonists in their MG or YA novels?

I think it’s important that the character have good intentions. When I was writing about Callie, I knew she needed to have flaws and issues, or there wouldn’t be a story. But I also needed readers to identify with and root for her. She’s a kid who tries to do the right things, but doesn’t always succeed. I think we’re all a bit like that.

How do you know if you’re pushing the boundaries when it comes to drugs, sex, or violence in MG or YA novels?

I haven’t written any YA, but have a couple of novel ideas simmering at the moment. Part of what holds me back is that I’m leery of having to address any of those topics, as it feels like a lot of responsibility.

The appeal of Middle Grade is that there is a clearer line not to cross. The language is clean (I had to remove a “Crap!” from one of my books) and drugs/alcohol/sex/violence aren’t likely to be addressed. When I originally started writing for this age group, I asked my agent about the boundaries and she said an editor had once told her that mentioning a bra strap is too much. I’ve read Middle Grade that goes well beyond that, but I prefer to keep things as clean as possible. For example, Callie is only eleven and so in need of a true friend that it never crossed my mind that Hoot could be a romantic interest for her. I’ve had a number of parents and librarians write to thank me for making him “just a friend”, as they feel girls in that 9-12 age group are being sexualized too soon.

Any “quick tips” you’d like to share with MG writers in terms of creating characters?

Try to give characters something to feel passionate about, whether it’s a sport, a school subject or a dream they’re reaching for. That interest will naturally add dimension to the character and to the story.

An editor pointed out to me that a perk of writing about kids is that they don’t have control over a lot of things. They are limited by rules, schedules and by their age and physical size/abilities. Sometimes figuring out how a character works within or around these limitations helps to develop their personalities, strengths and weaknesses.

Most of all, have fun with the character and make sure it’s someone you care about. You’ll be spending a lot of time together!