Last weekend my chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) hosted authors Kelly Barson and Mindy McGinnis. The topic for the day was characterization in YA and Middle Grade fiction. It was such a fun time at the Upper Arlington Library surrounded by writers and illustrators from all points in their professions. I love any chance to absorb the wisdom of other writers. Here is a break down of the top 3 things I learned about writing characters from Mindy and Kelly:
1. Create Likable Characters
At the meeting Kelly Barson provided us a list of character traits sorted by their degree of likability. One thing you want to be sure of is the fact that your main character is liked by most. Giving them only likable traits will create a perfect character and everyone hates perfect people. The trick to creating a likable character is to balance positive traits with negative traits to create a person who is relatable for the reader. Unfortunately, the chart was copyrighted so I cannot provide that for you, but if you are wondering if you have likable characters a quick google search on character traits can be helpful. Just remember: Every character should be balanced.
2. When it Comes to Backstory, Use Caution!
I did an entire post last weekend about the importance of leaving the backstory out of the first chapter. I had no idea it would be a topic touched on in depth during the meeting. The reason that backstory isn’t always necessary is because it stalls the plot. If you find that background is needed for your particular story be sure to feather it in. You shouldn’t have full pages of backstory. Sometimes a single sentence can be extremely telling about something that happened in the past.
An example from a short story I’m currently crafting: “The last time she was this upset was before Wilson’s accident.”
This sentence explains that the upset woman has been upset before. We know that something happened to Wilson, and if you read my entire short story that would all make a lot more sense. This single sentence reveals a lot about the characters without going back and explaining that Wilson was the main character’s older brother who died from a drug overdose a few years ago. I didn’t have to relay the scene. I trust my reader will make the connections using the rest of the story. A good acronym I heard at the meeting was RUE. It should serve as a reminder to you as an author: RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN.
3. Young Adult is About Children NOT For Children
When I started to cross over to Young Adult Fiction I struggled with it for a few weeks. I have an adult manuscript, but I found myself drawn to YA books and YA plots in my own writing. My struggle was a selfish one. I wondered, “Will people think I am less of a writer if I choose to write for a young adult audience?” Those musings didn’t last long because after my first workshopped piece I had my answer.
All of these years searching for my author voice culminated in my first YA piece.
It was an age group I understood and plots I could really explain. I’m a high school teacher and I live five days of the week in a YA world. I see young people who feel alone. I see young people struggling with pain. I see young people eager for new experiences. That is what helped me in my decision to focus more on YA. I don’t consider my writing to be exclusively for children. I just know that we were all at our rawest in our young adult years and those emotions and those scenarios we faced make for some of the best stories. YA isn’t for children. It is about children. And I am glad to say that the next manuscript I am working on is a YA piece.
Both Mindy McGinnis and Kelly A. Barson are phenomenal writers. I have interacted with Mindy on several occasions. My students read her first book Not a Drop to Drink in my English class. She was a guest speaker at our school last year as a result of the class reading. Also, for Christmas my husband sent her portions of my manuscript and I received her direct feedback. She is actually the person who suggested the SCBWI and I am so thankful she did.
The Ameri Brit Mom