Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Creating Memorable Characters by author/literary agent Mandy Hubbard

Dude! We welcome the talented author of PRADA & PREJUDICE and YOU WISH, both available now from Razorbill/Penguin, literary agent extraordinairre at D4EO... you know who it is, right?

Mandy Hubbard! (Click here to visit her website.) She's going to let us in on some secrets for creating memorable characters. Hang on tight.

When Lisa and Laura Roecker, two of the lovely organizers of this conference, asked me to write my post about “Creating Memorable Characters,” I, uh, laughed. Because I had the worst time creating memorable characters early in my career. When my first agented manuscript, THE JETSETTER’S SOCIAL CLUB, went on submissions, the editors pointed directly at the character as they rejected me. They were: too young/naive, too  mature/edgy, too similar, too different.

Now, here is where I went wrong. I looked at that and told myself, “They all disagree! So clearly, we just need to keep going. Like Goldilocks. We need our perfect fit.”

Uh, no. Because here’s the thing: they may have had different reasons on the surface. But what did they have in common? THE CHARACTERS. Every editor was trying to tell me that they weren’t connecting with the characters. And I should have listened. But I was but a na├»ve little writer, sure that my offer was just around the corner.

Soon, my agent moved on to Prada & Prejudice, and began submitting it. Right off the bat, guess what we ran into? Character issues. But this time around, editors liked it enough to ask me to revise. So, revise I did.
Until I was 7 drafts into it. And then I got a revision request to end all revision requests.

I had to rewrite it. From scratch.

And here’s when something  finally clicked into place. I stepped back and I looked at my story, looked at the new direction of the plot. And I asked myself-- What kind of character would be most interesting in this story? I was throwing a modern girl into 1815. What kind of modern girl would struggle the most in that situation?

Little Callie, who had once been 18, snarky, and fashionable, became a 15 year old clumsy geek girl struggling to fit in. Because if she can’t fit in 2010, how in the world will she feel in 1815?

This moment, to me, is the most important in creating a memorable character--  it’s the moment before you truly start writing. You have your idea—your hook. Maybe you have most of the plot worked out in your head. What you need is the right character to throw in there. A character who will struggle with the conflicts you throw at her.

In other words—your character and your conflict work together to form the perfect, memorable book. By choosing the right character type, you’ll maximize your ability to exploit all the other parts of the book—conflict, tension, plot, heck, even setting.

To do this, should know your character’s archetype.  I found an interesting two part article that shows archetypes for romance—8 heroes, and 8 heroines. They can be modified to fit a teen, of course.

But we all know that characters are like onions—multilayered, and you only get to see each layer as you peel them back. And the Archetype is just the outer layer.

From here, authors do any number of things—they create collages, they answer questionnaires, they model protagonists after television characters.

You should be able to create simple data sheets for your characters—beyond height, eye /hair color, etc, include deeper questions—is your character afraid of death? What is one thing she has always wanted to do, but is too afraid to try? Who does she want to become?  Who is she afraid she’ll become? What does she most admire about her best friend? Her Mother?

Think of as many questions as you can. Type up the questions, and the answers. Dig deep.

Once you think you know your character, start writing. Use your plot and conflict to expose those secrets. If your character is Type A, always wants to be in control, for the love of god, DO NOT tell us that. Let us see it. Give her a color-coded, tabbed, perfectly organized binder that she tucks into her backpack after class. Let her swing open her locker, placing her textbooks exactly in their designated slots.

And then, once we get to see all that—once you’ve demonstrated her Archetype through actions and dialog-- blow it all to hell. Use the plot to force your character out of her comfort zone. Because remember how choosing your character helps the plot? It works both ways. If your character struggles to remain in control, throw a plot twist at her that will wreck everything, and let’s see how she reacts. PERFECT CHEMISTRY by Simone Elkeles does this beautifully—outwardly, the protagonist has everything. Perfect Hair. Perfect Grades. But then she meets a Hispanic gang member, and her perfect control begins to slip. It was the marriage of the plot and character that created a memorable protagonist.

As an agent, it’s so, so important that your character is well-developed. The market is tougher than ever right now, and that means we need the whole package—great hook, great writing, great characters.

So in a nutshell, here it is:
A)     Decide on a character Archetype that will create the most conflict/tension.
B)      Using your character’s archetype, dig deeper—create a collage if you’re visual, or type up your own Q&A about your character. You can also use those stilly questionnaires that teens like to forward to each other.
C)      SHOW us your character, don’t tell us. For instance, if your character is shy/awkward, please, please do not have her think, “I do not feel comfortable in crowds. I would like to avoid them. I am a shy person.” Instead, have her wipe her sweaty palms on her jeans. Let her stomach lurch when the teacher calls on her in class.
D)     Use the plot to your advantage. For the character above—shove her in front of an audience. Let’s see how hard you can push before it’s too much.

I hope that helps, everyone! Good luck to you.

Mandy Hubbard joined D4EO Literary after interning at the Bent Agency. She represents a broad range ofmiddle grade and teen fiction, whether they be contemporary or historical, fantasy/paranormal or realistic. She is also the author of PRADA & PREJUDICE (Razorbill/Penguin, June 2009), DRIVEN (Harlequin, June 2010), YOU WISH (Razorbill/Penguin, August 2010) four other forthcoming YA novels.


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