I have always been more of a premise/plot writer. (Anyone else out there?) What comes to me first is the idea for a story. Then I spend a whole lot of time mucking about, trying to figure out who the story is about—and why anyone should care.
For example, when I first conceived the idea for my middle grade novel, Malcolm at Midnight, it was this: what if classroom pets came together in a secret society after all the humans went home? Populating the story wasn’t hard. I needed a couple of students, a teacher, and of course, a menagerie of critters. Easy, right?
But how to make them real? And why would they do all the fantastic, funny things I imagined for them (getting flushed down a toilet! falling off a clock tower! stealing a diamond ring!)?
I’ll admit it: I floundered for quite a bit.
Then, I stumbled upon three things that “clicked” with me, and the combination of these three are, I believe, why Malcolm was my first published novel (and why my previous ones are still languishing in a drawer).
First, was an interview by Cecil Castellucci on how she creates characters by thinking of Superman: http://institutechildrenslit.net/index.php?topic=1940.0;wap2 .
Second, was this sentence I literally posted on my laptop screen: “It’s not what happens next, it’s what Malcolm does next.”
But both of those are probably posts all on their own.
The third is the technique I want to share today. In a fit of frustration with writing Malcolm at Midnight, I did some free-writing—crafting letters from each of my characters to Mr. Binney, the teacher character, explaining their actions in the story.
It was an epiphany moment. And while I can’t say the rest of the story wrote itself, it certainly gave me more purpose and direction than anything I had previously done. It’s a technique I still use today.
Here’s why I think it works…
Letters help you to understand characters’ motivations.
Characters can’t do things in stories for no reason—and the plot needs them to discover X so Y can happen…well, that isn’t an adequate reason.
This was a hard one for me to learn. Instead of moving characters around to hit plot points, I had to think about why my characters did the things they did. And they told me in their letters. Sometimes it was something in their past. Sometimes it was a personality quirk. And sometimes it was a secret they were hiding. But they all were acting—even the bad guys—because they believed it was the right or necessary thing to do.
Caution: this isn’t an invitation to then dump all this backstory into your story. Hints of it may surface, but just by you knowing it, your characters will ring more true.
Letters give your characters a voice.
If you’re more of a plotter, like me, you maybe don’t “hear” your character talking like other writers do. But giving your characters quirks and mannerism and speech patterns to stand out in readers minds is important. When I wrote letters, suddenly, I heard Honey Bunny, the gruff male rabbit (who happens to be fluffy, cute, and misnamed), and he sounded like a very grumpy John Wayne. Snip, the bitter cat villain, had a hoarse whisper-voice, dripping with scorn. And the main student character—Amelia Vang—well, I ended up liking her earnest, overachieving voice so much, I kept her as my narrator. In fact, a version of her letter starts off the whole book.
Next time you’re stuck, pass the keyboard over to your characters and see how they explain themselves in a letter.
W.H. Beck is the author of the humorous middle grade mystery MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT, its upcoming sequel, MALCOLM UNDER THE STARS, and several nonfiction titles. She splits her time between writing books for kids and reading and recommending them as an elementary school librarian in Wisconsin. Visit http://www.whbeck.com for more information and follow her on Twitter at @whbeck.