One of the best speakers at SCBWI-LA, for me at least, was Rachel Vail. I’d never read any of her books before, but I made sure to order some from the Book Loft when I got home.
Rachel was extremely comfortable being in front of an audience (I’m sure her theater background helps a lot). She infused her talks with humor, practical tips and a list of questions to ask every character in your story.
Here’s the condensed version…
- Don’t “Write what you know.” Start with what you know. You are like the hero and you are like the bad guy too. Keep making stuff up until it’s true.
- Know absolutely everything about your characters. You don’t have the right to write about the character until you know them inside out.
- The first draft is boring, it’s cliche. The fact that it’s not good, doesn’t mean you’re not good. You have to do the work. Redraft and redraft. Know the history, the background details that don’t show up in the story but that inform everything about how the character feels physically and emotionally.
- Distinguish characters by the things they notice, what they talk about and what they hold back.
- The story begins when the character’s life is thrown off balance. The character spends the rest of the book trying to regain that balance.
- Use the forces of opposition. For example, make one character explosive, the other implosive. Or if you have a character who is scared of everything, let them do something brave, or place them in a situations where they are forced to deal with that fear.
- We can’t be brave if we’re not scared at all. Being brave is not the same as being fearless.
- Human beings grow up in full sight. We don’t get to hide in a cocoon. We have to do it in broad daylight, bombarded by adult feelings without the benefit of adult perspective. The first time you experience those emotions they knock you over like a wave on the sand. You need to respect that as a writer for young people. You need to be true.
- Often when you’re blocked it’s because you don’t know the character well enough, or you’re avoiding a scene. The scene you’re avoiding is the scene your book needs. You have to rub it like a bruise. It hurts like hell. It’s the exhausting scene.
- We write to live in the mind of another.
- If your character says to another character or herself, “I don’t even know what I want anymore,” that’s actually your character talking to you. That’s the character knocking on the page saying, “Excuse me. Need a motivation here. Tired of hanging out here chatting.”
- As hard as it might be to get into character, sometimes it’s hard to get out of character at the end of the day, and stop being that stomping 12-year-old girl who feels so vulnerable. But it’s important. We have to be grown ups as well. If you’re going to be a writer, you can be your creative self, but you’re also an independent business person and you have to take responsibility for that part as well. You can’t always be a teenager. Thank God. It’s bad for your skin. And your marriage.
Most Important Questions for your Characters
- Who am I?
- What do I want?
- Who is stopping me from getting it? (Hint: It might not be the antagonist.)
- Why are they stopping me?
- Why do I want it?
- What do I really want? (Hint: Often the opposite of what the character says they want.)
- What will happen if I don’t get it?
- What is at risk?
Imagining is tied up with remembering. Get inside and remember the emotions brewing inside.
One of the great comforts of books is that they can be company in this sometimes lonely life. A good book, a book with heart, can introduce us to characters who are more daring, or maybe more shy, older or younger, different genders or talents, living in familiar or exotic places, and we take a journey that is not our own, could never have been our own, but becomes our own as we gaze through a window made of paper and ink.
Life and death moments are a dime a dozen in 7th grade.