Anne Marie Pace: Characters Don’t Exist in a Vacuum

Anne MarieI try to be polite to people, even the irritating telemarketers or charity solicitors whose calls intrude at inconvenient times. Usually, my response goes pretty much like this: “I’m sorry—I’m not interested, but good luck with your calls today.”

Sometimes, however, I can’t stick to my script. Something in the caller’s tone of voice or words reaches deep enough to push me out of Polite Zone and into the realm of Very, Very Cross. And sometimes being Very, Very Cross means I am rude.

I like to think of myself as polite. But I know that I am not always polite. I am merely usually polite.

So what do my occasional impolite conversations with telemarketers have to do with creating characters? It’s this: Characters don’t exist in a vacuum, any more than you and I do. They interact with each other, with events, with the world around them. Just like real people who are mostly polite but sometimes not (ahem), well-developed characters aren’t 100% consistent: they aren’t always quiet, they aren’t always boisterous, they aren’t always neat, they aren’t always generous. When creating realistic characters, usually is more realistic than always.

Knowing your character’s “usually” and “sometimes” adds three-dimensionality.  As Shannon Wiersbitzky wrote earlier in this course, characters can be flat (simple) or round (more fully-developed).  You want your main characters to be well-developed, realistic, and round, and a character who always behaves the same way is flat. As my agent Linda Pratt points out, “it’s the layers underneath that make a character interesting. How does the character surprise you? It’s often in interactions with other characters that those surprises come out.” In my mind, the surprises Linda Pratt is referring to are the sometimes.

The sometimes parts of your character may be either conscious or subconscious. Perhaps the character is making a choice to be different. In Linda Urban’s middle-grade novel HOUND DOG TRUE, Uncle Potluck is a pretty happy-go-lucky, loosey-goosey story-spinning kind of guy — unless Principal Bonnet is nearby.  Then his words, his manners, even his body movements become noticeably formal and stilted as he strives to impress her.

On the other hand, the sometimes might also be unconscious or a new behavior for the character. I doubt little Prudence in Elizabeth George Speare’s THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND set out to change herself by taking reading lessons from Kit—she was simply starving for the love her mother denied her—and yet we see her blossom; Speare writes, “The tight little bud that was the real Prudence had steadily opened its petals in the sunshine of Kit’s friendship and Hannah’s gentle affection.” That blossoming gives Prudence the strength to testify on Kit’s behalf at the witchcraft trial.

While planning this blog post, I was tossing ideas around with Linda Urban (who writes amazing, memorable characters, by the way) and was struck by this comment: “In thinking about the always and the exception, “ she said,  “what makes the exception come out?  The exception signals to your reader that something matters.”

Take time to ponder your character’s usually and sometimes.  Let’s say your character is a quiet, introspective person. What would it take to make her speak up when she’d rather be silent or when it’s easier to be silent? Is there one friend with whom she can become boisterous? Is that friend boisterous herself?  Or do they become boisterous when they’re together? Why?

Or the reverse?  Maybe your character is the boisterous one.   She’s loud and irrepressible in every situation you throw at her—and then, all of a sudden, she’s quiet.  Even Pippi Longstocking gets sad sometimes.

And to take it a step farther—what if your character is usually quiet, but sometimes boisterous with her friend—but then something happens that makes her choose quiet in her interactions with that friend?

Knowing your character’s usually and sometimes can actually help you develop your plot.

One last thought: you may not realize how your character will act in a situation until you are actually writing the situation and watching your character’s knock up against one another—in other words, the sometimes might even surprise you. If this happens, let it evolve. Your character is telling you something important.

Gotta go.  My phone is ringing . . .

Anne Marie Pace

Anne Marie Pace

Despite the oft-quoted adage to write what you know, Anne Marie Pace has never been a bear, a vampire, a pig, or a ballerina.  She is the author of the Vampirina Ballerina seriesillustrated by LeUyen Pham, and published by Disney-Hyperion, as well as two original paperbacks for Scholastic Book Clubs, Never Ever Talk to Strangers and A Teacher for Bear, both about bears.  Coming in fall 2016 from Henry Holt is Pigloo, illustrated by Lorna Hussey. She is an active member of SCBWI. She lives in Virginia with her husband, four teenagers, and two ill-behaved dogs.

Registered for Summer School? Check out Anne Marie’s awesome writing exercise in the exercise book.


113 comments on “Anne Marie Pace: Characters Don’t Exist in a Vacuum

  1. Anne Marie, thanks for the reminder that my characters sometimes act in unusual ways…or should. 🙂


  2. Doris Stone says:

    Thanks Anne Marie for the reminder to dig deeper and really flush out the character. It is so easy to make our characters flat.


  3. Janet Smart says:

    thanks. Those are some interesting ideas you’ve tossed out to us.


  4. Carrie Brown says:

    Thanks, Anne Marie. I love this. As picture books are proded to be character-driven, we have a short mold to fit these traits into. However, everything you suggest provides the emotional in to our character’s why and will really help with show, don’t tell. Time to get interesting!


  5. S Marie says:

    “Knowing your character’s “usually” and “sometimes” adds three-dimensionality” – excellent tip!!


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