Last week, I shared Cynthia Reeg’s debut middle grade novel, From the Grave. This week, Cindy shares her process of creating characters with heart. To me, this is the essence, the challenge of writing. Neil Gaiman says it so well: “We writers — and especially writers for children, but all writers — have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were — to understand that truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.”
MINING FOR HEART: Making Monsters Who Matter
I love the topic that Beth is highlighting here on her blog. For me the heart of the story is one of the main reasons that I write. Oh sure, I love to have fun with words, and I’m not above throwing in some gross out scenes or goofy jokes when the story calls for it. But for me, even a laugh-out-loud story needs to have heart to be a total triumph. It needs to grab the reader in a deeper, more lasting place and dig in and take root to be a success.
I still remember the first book that did that for me when I was a young girl. In third grade I read BLUE WILLOW by Doris Gates, a fictionalized story of the Great Depression set in Central California’s itinerant camps. Janey, a poor girl who has lost almost everything, gives up her prized willow plate to pay the doctor when her mother falls ill.
I lived and breathed Janey’s joys and sorrows. I walked the dusty roads with her. I felt the sun beat down on my head too. I clutched the willow plate close, and I cried when Janey gave it away.
From day one when I’d learned to read, I’d loved it, but this book sealed the deal for me. Books were officially my life from then on. Not only was I addicted to reading, but I wanted to write the words that would touch others too—like Ms. Gates’ words had me.
So fast forward a LOT of years and a LOT of stories (that I wrote) later, when some misfit monsters crept into my life. What kind of heart could possibly be found among such an outlandish crew?
In my fantasy FROM THE GRAVE, my two main characters alternate telling the tale. One is a sixth grade pale blue mutant who cares more about keeping his pants neat than scarying the pants off victims. The other is a seventh grade true-blood troll who thinks he’s the authority on monstering until he discovers his own skeleton in the closet. There are plenty more peculiar characters—from a water-gushing dragon to a clowning two-headed gargoyle. How does an author imbue such a crazy cast with the necessary elements to claw their way into readers’ hearts?
Emotion. Vulnerability. Individuality.
To create a bond between a reader and a character, they must connect. In order to do that the character must jump off the page. The only way this happens is when the character is unique and yet still relatable. Even a hulking blue Frankenstein can share his sense of not fitting in; his friendship woes; his family dramas; his quest to discover exactly who he is—so much like the middle grader reading the story.
And yes, it is true. Monsters do cry on rare occasions. They also laugh sometimes—even if they’re not supposed to. They feel fear and loss, rejection and hatred. At least my monsters in FROM THE GRAVE do. I most definitely set out to “mine for the heart.” Early reviews have already cited my story as “heartfelt” and “with plenty of heart.” I was overjoyed to see that my literary efforts had paid off.
Even with such unlikely heroes and anti-heroes traipsing across the pages, I attempted to highlight a powerful theme: the need for acceptance and inclusion—the benefits of welcoming diversity. I did this by making my characters so much more than stereotypical monsters.
My advice for writing a story with plenty of heart—no matter whether your characters are humans or creatures—is to give them depth. Make them three-dimensional. Make them distinct. Make them tortured, imperfect, conflicted, surprising, endearing, and somehow still likeable.
How does a writer do this? For me, the characters start forming in my brain even before they do on paper. They come to me as a glimmer and grow more distinct as I hang out with them. That’s right, a writer needs to spend time with the characters. It’s great to fill out character charts. Those are helpful but they’ll only take the character to a certain point. I like to plunge into the story, write a pivotal scene. That’s how I really start to know the characters. Or often I’ll carry the characters with me—on a walk or a drive—or even to the dentist’s. I’ll mull over plot points with them or slip inside their skins to see how they feel or would react or what they’d say. I listen for their voices. I look carefully for their body language.
I focus on the world around also—sounds, scents, touch. How does this become part of the story? Then I weave them together—character, scene, plot—always trying to choose the best words, the right beat, the most impactful emotions. Oftentimes, the unexpected happens—the character says surprising stuff or the scene heads another direction than planned. It may turn out not to work for the story or it may be totally awesome. The secret is practice—imagine, write, imagine.
The other secret I’ve found is that a writer works 24/7! There is no downtime from studying the world around—even in dreams. Listen. Observe. Feel. I’ve always been a pretty quiet person. People would sometimes say, “You don’t talk much.” But the truth was that those people were TOO busy talking to listen much. That’s why writing is so important to me. I can unleash all my observations, thoughts, and emotions on paper.
Ah, there it is once again—emotions. The heart of the story. If this advice for creating impactful stories sounds daunting, I’ll offer one final important secret. First mine your own heart—then the rest will fall into place.
Visit Cindy’s blog and check out her post on world building.