Kathryn Erskine: Walking Around in Your Characters’ Shoes

Kathryn walks in a sheep field like her MC from The Badger Knight.

Kathryn walks in a sheep field like her MC from The Badger Knight.

To riff on a great line from a great book (To Kill a Mockingbird) you never really know a character until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.  Characters are really people, aren’t they?  So that’s exactly what we need to do — walk around in their shoes.  Really.  It’s fun!

Step 1:  What kind of shoes does your character wear?

Do you know?  What do you picture?  Flip flops?  Uggs?  Chucks?  Chucks personalized with paint or markers?  Shoes tell us something about the person wearing them — they could speak to comfort or style or status.  Think about your characters.  It’s not necessary to say what they’re wearing, just to have a feel for it yourself, although sometimes I’ve used the actual shoes to make a figurative point:

MikeIn the Absolute Value of Mike, Mike always wears the same style of brown lace-up Clarks his now deceased mom bought for him when he was little — an indication of his connection to her and his yearning for a family since he’s so disconnected from his dad.

Matt wears big black boots in Quaking to look tough and protect her from the world that, so far, has only hurt her.

Adrian’s boots are too small at the beginning of The Badger Knight and he is, for the first time, entrusted to buy his own new boots.  He chooses poorly — stylish, expensive, and too large — because he’s relying on trappings to make himself feel big and important.  As his hero’s journey continues, Adrian is increasingly grateful for the practical boots his father ended up trading for, realizing that true power and beauty come from within.

 Step 2:  Where is your character standing?

Look around.  How does the setting affect your character?  Is your character:

Quaking (See the boots?)

Quaking (See the boots?)

Poor?

Outcast?

Foreign?

Fish out of water?

One of many, trying to break out?

What about the environment is pushing against your character and how does he or she push back?  Think of it this way:  if your character were in the Wild West, how would where your character stands differ from Downtown Abbey?  A modern urban environment?  A small boat at sea?  Narnia?  The setting your character comes up against is going to tell us a lot about who your character is.

 IMG_0212Step 3:  What does your character see as she’s standing in those shoes? 

And how, exactly, does your character see it?  Is there any vision issue?  What is your character’s physical perspective?  Is she tall, short, young, old?  If she sees a tree does she want to climb it?  If she sees a building does she want to spray paint it?  If she sees something that scares her does she run away or is she drawn to it?

 Step 4:  How does your character walk?

You can tell a lot about someone by the way they walk.  Is it a confident stride, a cocky strut, sexy sashay, slow saunter, shy shuffle?  Walk like your character.  I bet you can tell your spouse’s or kid’s or mom’s walk from far away.  It’s distinctive.  And it says something about them.  It’s partly body type and skeletal frame but it’s also personality and perhaps pain, either physical or emotional.  Walk up to a full-length mirror so you can see your character’s walk.

 Step 5:  How does your character talk?

Is there anything distinctive about her voice?  An accent?  A stutter?  Particularly nasal or a low, gravely voice?  An unusual word or phrase she uses a lot to describe something or express surprise?  There should be something that lets us “hear” her so that when she’s talking you don’t even need to write, “Sudipta said,” because we know it’s Sudipta.  That’s when you’ve created a distinct, unique voice for your character.  Also, when does your character talk?  Is this a shy or outspoken character?  Is her voice soft or loud?  Does she yell?  Ever?  If so, when?  All of these elements reflect her personality.  Talk or whisper or yell out loud so you can hear your character’s voice.

 Step 6:  How does your character feel and think?

Now that you’re getting the hang of their body, get in touch with their emotions and personalities.  You know what they see and where they are and how they see it.  How does that make them feel?  Do they sweat?  Startle?  Run and hide?  Push themselves forward no matter what the danger?  How do they react to being short or tall or poor or an outcast?  Are they defiant, depressed, determined?  And why?

Take a Myers Briggs test from your character’s perspective.  Figure out what “love language” they speak, i.e., what motivates them (from Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages):

Kathryn's latest novel: The Badger Knight

Kathryn’s latest novel: The Badger Knight

–gifts

–quality time

–praise

–service

–touch (e.g., hugs)

Also, do some research if you need to discover specific aspects of your character — how does divorce or a new baby affect a 5 year old, 8 year old, 13 year old?

Often, our past experience helps shape who we are, which leads us to the next step….

 Step 7:  Where has your character walked before?

If you know your character’s past and who they are, then you’ll have a good feel for how they’ll react to situations and what motivates them.  The classic example is Harry Potter. What kind of background must we know in order to buy the idea that an eleven year old boy would fight the supreme wizard who threatens the world?  We had to see the horrible Dursleys with whom Harry lived — in that spidery closet under the stairs — and know that his parents were killed by Voldemoort even as they gave their lives to save their son.  On top of that, the only family Harry has now, his friends at Hogwarts, are in imminent danger of being destroyed by the dark lord.  Add to that a suspected protective power hidden in that scar on his forehead and, OK, I’m sold.

 Step 8:  How does your character act?

See above.  Once you know steps 1 – 7, then you know how your character acts.  And if you ever start doubting or wondering, put those Keds , Crocs or whatever back on and get in touch with that character again.  Talk to him.  Ask her questions.  Hang out with them.  It’ll be like visiting an old friend, or frenemy, and after you’ve had a quick chance to catch up, you can step forward.

 Happy trails!

P.S.  You might want to make sure your character likes to eat and drink things that you enjoy, since that’s a part of becoming your character, too.  A favorite part of research!  And not just for me — notice how Kami Kinard has a cupcake theme in The Boy Problem.  I predict Hot Tamale candies in a future novel….

IMG_0753_2

Kathryn Erskine is the author of five children’s novels including National Book Award winner, Mockingbird, the recent Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and her upcoming release, The Badger Knight.  She draws on her life stories and world events in her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books. You can find out more about her on her WEBSITE! 

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Kathy’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check the Facebook group or your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.

Advertisements

184 comments on “Kathryn Erskine: Walking Around in Your Characters’ Shoes

  1. Samantha says:

    Great start to Summer School. I love finding new and helpful character “interview-style” sheets. Thank you, Kathryn!

    Like

  2. Sue Frye says:

    I’m loving Summer School! Great info! Thanks so much for sharing~!!

    Like

  3. Rena Traxel says:

    I’ve never really put much thought into how my MC walks. Off to do that now.

    Like

  4. HilleryRubens says:

    This post is especially helpful since I have lately felt very disconnected from my characters. Thank you for your expertise, and I’m off to slip into my character’s shoes and go for a walk!

    Like

  5. This is a terrific post. Great advice. Thanks!

    Like

  6. Beth Gallagher says:

    Reread this post, and wanted to thank you for it! It’s a great one as I am just now starting to write a YA novel!

    Like

  7. Marge Gower says:

    Sorry my rely is so late, I couldn’t get the comment section to work for me. My head was spinning with all your great information. Good things to consider in the development of a character. Thanks for the great start to summer school.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Cindy Martel says:

    Hi Kathryn,
    I’m currently working on a MG mss, and thought I really knew my protagonist. After reading your post, I now realize there’s so much I don’t know about her. Hang out with your character…what a great idea!
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a great post that is really helping me to think about a brand new character who has been hanging around for a little while now. Thanks! And I liked the food advice too – mmmm, research.

    Like

  10. Mindy Alyse Weiss says:

    Thanks so much for this fantastic post, Kathryn! I learned some new things about the MC in the MG I’m about to rewrite, and can’t wait to work in the great new insights.

    Like

  11. kathyerskine says:

    Keep exploring, kicking, and writing! This is such a great group!

    Like

  12. Doris Stone says:

    This was such an eyeopening exercise. Thank you so much Kathryn!

    Like

  13. Kathy Cornell Berman says:

    Thanks! This has helped me to get to know my character in a new way!

    Like

  14. Great photo, Kathy. I tried twisting my hands and looking through my fingers like that. Can’t do it. Especially can’t smile at the same time. Reading Badger Knight now. St. Jerome’s Bones! I couldn’t believe Adrian bought those crazy pointed shoes!

    Thanks for all the writing wisdom.

    Like

  15. Rita says:

    Great article. Who doesn’t love shoes. I remember in the first grade trading shoes with a friend… I guess I was trying to see how it felt to be her?

    Like

  16. Wonderful suggestions from an incredible writing talent!

    Like

  17. O. My, Kathryn Erskine. Today (waiting for an appt. ) I was able to begin reading MOCKINGBIRD (mok’ing burd). I am heart-melting for Caitlin & her challenging life, of no easy answers. I am fortunate the book arrived this weekend. I can’t wait for the ups/downs from now thru the end.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s