Saturday, August 9, 2014

Character webs

The “next” project is one I’ve been working on forever. 

Okay, not forever, but for 30 years or more. It was an MG story conceived, then started, then abandoned (but not forgotten). It was the one that got me into writing. I spent a few years on it and as I sent it out, editors and agents pointed out some glaring issues with it. By then, not only was I into a new project, but had become weary of it and had no more energy to devote to it. 

This year I brought it out again, blew off the dust, repackaged it as a YA, and workshopped it at WIFYR. There I was struck by an inner voice, perhaps the ten-year old stuck in my head, that said I’m an MG writer, not a YA. Okay, back to working it for younger readers. 

Still, the story is missing something, no matter what audience it reaches. 

Imitation of those who do it well seemed like a good strategy, so I’ve been re-reading exemplary MG stories.
In A Clockwork Three, Matthew J. Kirby gives his three main characters something to work for then expertly raises the stakes making it harder for them to achieve it. Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons is a richly woven tale about Salamanca, a girl searching for answers to the disappearance of her mother. (I still tear up when I read it.) A supporting cast of characters are among the reason this book resonates. Solveig in Kirby’s Icefall also involves a compelling protagonist who rides on the shoulders of strong supporting characters. The lesson here: stories are about people. 

I also revisited John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. He says writers need to focus not just on the hero, but the whole web of characters that help define him. Most writers start by listing traits of the MC, write a tale about him, then force a change in the end. Truby says this is wrong, that the hero does not act alone in a vacuum. The most important step in developing your MC is to connect and compare them to others. This forces you to distinguish the hero in unique ways. As in life, we are affected not just by our families and co-workers, but by the idiot that cut you off in traffic, the writer that brought you to tears with her prose, or the politician whose ideology you disagree with. How we react defines our character. The heroes in our stories are no less so connected to the web of characters in our stories.

Truby provides a writing exercise to help build your character web. It is worth looking into. 

Okay, “next” project. I’ve got my eye on you. I don’t know if you’re going YA or MG, but you are going to have some interesting people carrying you along.

(This article also posted at

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