20 tips on writing vivid characters from SCBWI SE Scotland teach-in

Tangible figures, like these Playmobil, can help you visualise the action from the character's point of view
Tangible figures, like these Playmobil, can help you visualise the action from the character’s point of view

SCBWI Southeast Scotland had our second successful teach-in at the Edinburgh Central Library this weekend, and we were delighted to welcome 17 attendees in total. If you’re writing a children’s book or you’re an illustrator wanting to get into picture books, you’re welcome to come along and find out what we’re all about.

Newcomers and old hands alike were on board at this meeting, where the “teach-in” format is pretty relaxed. We all simply bring tips, insights and occasionally printed handouts on the topic at hand. This time — partly due to a plea from myself to do something in this area — the topic was all about character. How do we write vivid, consistent and compelling characters? How do we get inside their heads and write from inside them, creating characters that leap off the page, grab readers and don’t let them go?

The first full-length manuscript I wrote had characters that were terribly flat: barely distinguishable from each other, to the extent that, when I realised certain dialogue was in the wrong place, I just reassigned one character’s lines to a different character. Awfully bad writing practice! During revision, it was painful (of course revision is always painful) to attempt to inflate these characters retrospectively with real personality. Later, in an experiment, I wrote a story based on real people I’ve known, and they really did leap off the page. What I hoped to get from the teach-in was insight on how to put a real beating heart inside any character I write (without necessarily using up every real person I know – a technique guaranteed to lose me all friends and family!)

20 character tips from the collective SCBWI consciousness:

In no particular order, here are the tips I found most enlightening from the teach-in. This isn’t a shooting list of everything you must do for your characters; many writers said they turn to these techniques when they get stuck, as a means of getting new inspiration or direction:

  1. The doorknob: works especially well for minor characters, Elizabeth noted. It involves giving the characters something noticeable and distinguishable that the reader can grab onto, like a doorknob. Maybe they have a limp, or an umbrella. These handles make it easier for the reader to recognise that character when they drift back onto the scene, and you can even use their “prop” within the story. A good technique if you’re finding your minor characters all blend together. (We were delighted Elizabeth Wein came to sit around the table with us on this teach-in – she’s the Scotland-based author of award-winning YA like Code Name Verity and the Costa shortlisted Rose Under Fire).
  2. Act out the scene: dramatise what you’re writing by acting out what your characters are doing. A good way to feel what your character is feeling, and write believable reactions and next steps for the character.
  3. Letter of introduction: ask your main character to write a letter introducing himself or herself to you. What would they tell you about themselves? Fiona finds this technique useful.
  4. Character monologue: think of the character in your book as being in play or a film. Can you write a monologue for him? What would he say – would he talk about secrets he hasn’t shared with anyone else? Would she reveal a weakness she usually keeps hidden?
  5. A short story: give your characters a workout by writing a short story you don’t intend to use in your main work. Sean recommends this method. It exercises the character and allows you to see how he or she will react in a different situation that isn’t part of your bigger story. Does the character do anything that surprises you?
  6. Combining real people: try taking characteristics from various people you know and combining them into one individual. Those genuine “from-life” personality traits can combine believably into a new, breathing character.
  7. Visit real places and touch real things: go to a castle, a moor, the beach – anywhere your character would be. How does it make you feel to be in that place? Does that tell you anything about your character’s emotional state? When you feel what they might feel, you can write from that emotional place and the output might surprise you. Elizabeth also mentioned holding in her hand an old coin and asking herself, “what’s the first thing my character would notice about this?” The answer she came up with (that the king was crowned on one side of the coin, but not on the other side), ended up informing the story she wrote.
  8. Play around: Shown here is a Playmobil exercise Elizabeth demonstrated at this year’s SCBWI-BI conference in a “world-building” workshop; even just playing around with toy figures allows you to create scenarios and imagine the action from the character’s point of view. I put these two figures behind a bush, with the boy’s mother peeping over, and the personalities of the characters immediately suggested themselves to me. The power of the tangible isn’t to be underestimated!
  9. Trick your brain into unlocking creativity: Jeanne said that studying a physical object can similarly help the brain to switch to a more creative mode. For picture book writers, if you’re sitting down to draw and are disappointed with your ideas, the simple exercise of studying and drawing a simple object nearby can help awaken your powers of observation, and make it easier to begin the creative process.
  10. Get away from the desk: several people mentioned the salutary effect of leaving the computer behind and going to a different location. Fiona mentioned Claire Wingfield’s “52 dates for writers,” a resource filled with specific creativity-enhancing things to do, from riding a tandem to visiting a cafe.
  11. Be your character for a day: a serious actors do, you could eat, dress, walk and think in the persona of your main character for a whole day. This process allows you to make believable choices for your character.
  12. Buy a book as your character: Rachel mentioned visiting a secondhand bookshop and picking up a few books her character would buy. What reading choices does your character make?
  13. Read recommended books on character: Stephanie recommended Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood as a great resource, and Sean recommended Characters Emotion and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress.
  14. Troubleshoot character challenges: Sheila recommended Bring Your Characters to Life by Roz Morris, a good resource and a fast read, with particular help in troubleshooting characters that aren’t working.
  15. The Johari Window: Roz Morris’s book recommends this tool for bringing insight to your character’s reactions and emotions. Draw a window divided into four squares, where you write A) the known self, traits everyone knows about your character; B) the blind self, traits everyone but your character knows about him; C) the hidden self, with traits only the character knows and keeps secret; and D) the unknown self, with traits no one suspects the character has, and which may only emerge under stress or in the course of the story. See more info here.
  16. The psychological approach: Louise recommended another psychological approach which uses traditional human resources-style personality tests to typify reactions of four main personality types. These can offer a good framework to write believable reactions for different character types: Amiable, Driven, Expressive and Analytical. Sarah noted that other HR approaches to categorising personalities may also help.
  17. Your character’s star sign: what is the day and month (star sign and even Chinese horoscope) for your character’s birthday? This can provide an interesting insight.
  18. In a single word: Rosemarie says the challenge of summing up your character in a single word can be useful. What one word would you choose?
  19. Character chart: as suggested by Christina and others, filling out a full-scale questionnaire is often helpful, including info ranging from eye colour to their immediate problem and long term goals.  This might be useful to do after the first draft, when you’ve discovered who your character is, so that you can keep her consistent as you redraft.
  20. Over-the-shoulder camera: Imagine you’re seeing the action from a camera on your narrator’s shoulder. This can help you really focus on how they would see the world. Now imagine how they’re reacting.

Our next meet, topic to be decided, is set for 1 February 2014 again in Edinburgh Central Library. Would you like to come? Please drop us a line at southeastscotland@britishscbwi.org. If you’re not yet a member of SCBWI British Isles, it’s a $85 US per year subscription for year one (less in subsequent years). Do come along – we’re a friendly group, at a range of stages in our publication journey, from total newbie, unagented and unpublished to agented, about to be published, and multi-published.

Our SE Scotland group is part of the British Isles region of the global Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a Los-Angeles headquartered organisation with more than 20,000 members worldwide. SCBWI is the largest single organisation devoted to the profession of writing and illustrating children’s books and the British Isles region has around 700 members; our Facebook group is open to anyone, including non-members. Find out more and track down your nearest SCBWI network in the UK at britishisles.scbwi.org

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