Avoiding Cliché Characters In YA Fiction, by Lori Ann Palma

sunset-242713_1280When writers develop characters, we most often begin with an idea—a sort of shapeless blob that becomes more distinct as we write a first draft or do a pre-writing character study. Over time, they grow physical characteristics and a personality, as well as a goal or desire they want to attain. As these details come into focus, you have to keep a sharp eye on your character development for any clichés.

A cliché is defined as an overused idea that lacks originality. Some of the common character clichés in YA fiction include the brooding loner bad boy, the mean girl who rules the school, and a one-dimensional BFF sidekick. If you’re using one of these character types in your story, don’t panic! You’re about to learn how to transform them.

Here are a few areas to focus on when developing a unique cast of characters for your novel:

Physical Description: Details set people apart, especially when it comes to a character’s physical description. However, it can be easy to forget about details when you already have the character’s type in your head. When the type combines with expected physical characteristics, cliché disasters happen. Examples include: the most popular girl in school has long, lustrous blonde hair and perfect skin, or the male star athlete is tall, hot, and has plenty of muscles. Even these examples can be challenged as stereotypes…what if you have a popular boy character and a female star athlete?

To avoid clichés, start by making a list of character types featured in your work. You might have a queen bee, a cheating boyfriend, an overprotective mother. As you develop them further, challenge stereotypes and write their appearance so it defies expectations. Think about it like casting a movie…would you go with the obvious choice or the surprising actor?

Personality: Humans are complex beings with qualities that are often contradictory. As you craft your characters and define their personalities, use a combination of contrasting traits. Good people aren’t good every second of the day, beautiful people can have deep emotional scars, and wallflowers can be enchanting in their own unique way. Using the same examples as before, your popular character might be really nice, and the star athlete doesn’t have to be an academically challenged meathead. The idea is to balance your characters with traits that make them surprising. When their personality isn’t locked into a stereotype, their actions become all the more compelling.

Actions: Characters must have a desire, then take action to attain this desire, thus moving the plot forward. When it comes to writing character actions and choices, avoiding clichés gets tricky.  The reason: there are cliché plots, and then there are story (or genre) conventions. A story convention is what you expect a novel to include. For example, if you’re writing a murder mystery, you expect to have a crime, an investigator (usually your protagonist), a villain, and a red herring. If it’s a love story, then you’d expect to have some sort of misunderstanding or fight that breaks the couple up before they eventually come back together. You know these things are going to happen, so it seems like they are a cliché, but really, they are elements of a story that make the plot rise and fall.

That being said, the line can become blurry. A love triangle, for example, is a cliché, but is used so often, it can be confused as a convention. Other examples of overused tropes include characters who only love themselves after receiving love from a relationship, or characters who are in love instantly, like after one chapter. If you find yourself heading down this road, it will be helpful to do some research into the common clichés in your YA genre. Armed with a list, you’ll be able to avoid as you craft your plot. Furthermore, as you’re writing, ask yourself if the choices your characters makes feel predictable. If you can’t be objective, try asking a beta reader or critique partner if they knew what was going to happen way before it happened.

In reality, it’s actually quite difficult to avoid ALL clichés, which is why I think including one or two is okay, as long as you don’t overwhelm your story with them. Overall, the key is to pay attention to what you’re writing. Your first draft may fall victim to some common tropes, but that’s what revising is for. When you go back and read, keep an eye out for any stereotypes. If you find one, challenge yourself to tweak it.

None of us are immune to writing clichés, but with some thought and revising, your characters will feel as if they’re living, breathing humans.

Are there any clichés you tend to repeat in your work?

 

 

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Chapter Prewriting Guide: Essential Character Inventory, by Kristen C. Strocchia

checklist-2470549_1280As Darcy Pattison likes to say, no character comes into a chapter or scene neutral. So, as the author, there are a few things that I need to be aware of before sitting to write the next chapter or scene of a character’s story:

First of all, who are the characters in this chapter? Orson Scott Card, in his book Character and Viewpoint, talks about the characters who must be there and the ones who might be. It’s important to consider both, to know why these characters must or might be present and how they interact with one another and the plot.

Second, what is the main character (MC) feeling right now? This emotion is not a random cosmic hiccup or an arbitrary feeling fit by the author. It should flow justifiably from the emotional set-up of the preceding chapter, which possibly hails from a deep-rooted character trait and of course backstory. This emotion can and probably will change as the chapter unfolds and each other character is introduced to the scene.

Third, what is the tension in this chapter? And how does my character respond to this tension? The MC will have overall goals, stakes, and conflict propelling the novel, but what is the particular tension in this chapter that will keep the MC on edge and readers right there turning pages with them?

Fourth, when and where is this chapter occurring? Just like no character emotes in a vacuum, no character reacts in a black hole. Knowing whether it is light or dark out, just before breakfast or just after, in a desert or a frozen tundra makes a hug difference in how the character will respond.

By taking the time to consider these things, I can ensure—even in a first draft—that the emotional path and reaction choices stay more consistent with the character than if I just write through my plot outline. Not only that, but I can take this inventory a step deeper before putting pen to paper and ask: is this combination of MUST be, MIGHT be, justifiable emotion, chapter tension and setting the best possible choice for fleshing out this character? Does it serve both the character development arc and story arc? Is it absolutely essential?

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Upcoming EPA SCBWI Events

Saturday September 9, 2017: SCBWI Eastern PA Annual Illustrator Day comes back to Center City for a day of presentations, discussion and portfolio reviews!

Including a stellar faculty: Jonathan BeanIllustrator; Sarah HokansonArt DirectorJames BurnsAgent & Christopher BrownCurator, Children’s Literature Research Collection

Register now and start the art director’s assignment. Limited optional portfolio reviews sell out quickly!

 


Save the dates for these fantastic events coming up in Eastern PA.

• WISH UPON A STORY with Sarah Aronson at Bethlehem Library — August 21

• POETRY DAY in Lancaster — October 7

• FALL PHILLY at The Warwick at Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia — November 5
Details to follow.

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Character Primer: Which Hatched First—The Character or The Plot? by Kristen C. Strocchia

egg-944495_1280Character development is a classic question of which hatched first—the character or the plot? Or—if you’re like me—then the title almost always springs to mind first, spurring the development of both. Sometimes my title ideas inspire a setting and a name or a list of names. When this happens, I have to start asking myself questions about motives and backstory to find the plot. More often, my titles carry an inherent plot line to which I need to fit characters and find an appropriate setting. However, there’s no one set way to write a picture book or novel character.

When characters hatch first, then likely the plot will grow around backstory and out of the main character’s deepest needs, desires, and fears. In this case, it’s a good idea to do character sketches or inventories. Personally, I find that these characters are more developed from the outset because I know exactly who they are and how they will react before I even present them with an obstacle. Despite this, I often prefer to carve a character out of the conflict rather than the other way around.

If plot hatches first, then the main character will be the person who grows the most through the trials and tribulations that befall them and will have the most to gain or lose at the climax of the conflict. For me, this character is more fun to develop because I get to know them slowly, like becoming good friends as the first and subsequent drafts unfold. As a fairly recent convert to plotter, this type of character development also leaves the creative space to change my story arc as the characters reveal themselves to me.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where you start as long as your character and plot intertwine unquestionably, each incomplete without the other—like sneakers without laces or a cone without ice cream. Remember, even though there’s not a set way to develop a character, a great book needs both. Regardless of whether you start with a sensational character or an innovative plot, take time to hatch and cultivate both.

Which one comes first for you?

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Introducing Your Characters to Your Friends, by Lindsay Bandy

July is all about picnics, fireworks, and…CHARACTER!

You probably already had your BBQ for Independence Day, but it’s not too late to introduce your characters to your friends. No, I don’t mean you should pull chairs around the campfire and leave some empty for your pretend friends. I mean get your critique group together – or join/start one!

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So are you a Plot Person, or a Character-Character?  Did you start writing your story because of the cool, twisty plot that popped into your head? Or did a character somehow find you and convince you to tell their story? Obviously, every story needs both, because character and plot are dependent on each other, but depending on your personality, one might come easier to you than the other.

I’m more of a Character-Character when it comes to starting my stories. I know who they are and how they need to grow, but I can’t outline to save my life. I need to develop a series of events (er, plot) that will get them from point A to point B emotionally, because I love, love, love, love them and I can’t wait to introduce all my friends to my characters….but….

Surprise! I don’t actually know them as well as I think I do.

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Time after time, I write a scene only to have a critique partner say, “Um, that reaction doesn’t make sense. Did something happen in her past to make her react that way? Or don’t you think she might do this instead?” Hmmmm….okay. I either need to better understand my character’s backstory and emotional makeup, or adjust their action/reaction. Even if I don’t agree with a suggestion, these kinds of questions always help me to hone my character because I need to justify their response, fully understand their story and what makes them tick. We need other people to ask us the questions we haven’t thought of yet so we can really know our characters.

Here are a few suggestions for your next critique session:

-As you read someone else’s work, make note of sentences or details that alert you to something deeper about a character. Sometimes, an author will write something subconsciously, and you as the reader can help to point out what their character is trying to tell them. Pointing out the use of a certain word, reaction, or some other telling detail can actually surprise the author, leading them in a new (and right!) direction.

-Make a list of what you know, paying particular attention to the things you, as the reader, have inferred. Telling the author what you know about their character can be extremely helpful. Starting a critique session by saying, “First off, tell me what you know,” can  help you to see if you’re conveying what you want to convey….or not.

-Always note when an interaction or reaction feels off. Bring this up gently, and with the intent of helping the author to dig deeper into their character’s psyche.

-Don’t forget about secondary characters. We learn a lot about a person through their interactions with friends, enemies, and family members. Think about the ways secondary characters bring out the good or bad in your MC or the antagonist. If these people aren’t bringing out an interesting or real side of your MC, maybe that secondary character needs some work. Maybe they need a personality change. Maybe they just need to die. Hey, you never know.

-Try IF-THEN charts. Try out different paths of action for your characters without having to write an outline or a cumbersome number of throwaway scenes. You can make a list or chart to evaluate your options. IF on one side, THEN on the other.

 

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Summer Mentor Read, by Kristen C. Strocchia

books-1245744_1280Got time for books?

Why not put your reading time to work and make a mentor reading list for this summer? I’ve discovered over the last several years of attending the Pocono Retreat that besides a Writing To Do list, I also leave with a list of ideas for mentor reads.

What is a mentor read? Simply a book that does something that you’re trying to do with your manuscript—whether you’re succeeding already or you’ve hit a road block—and does it well. It’s a book that you can go to for craft advice. Dissect the author’s construction. Learn something new or hone your almost-there-skill.

The possible topics a mentor read can help with are limitless. Consider studying a published work for advice on:

  • Introducing characters
  • Character development
  • POV
  • Plot structure
  • Voice
  • Pacing
  • World-building
  • Incorporating foreign language (without confusing readers)…this is one of my mainstays
  • And anything else you can think of/need!

It’s like a DIY writer’s workshop for FREE…or the cost of a book. But where else can you get a writer’s workshop that cheap? And it’s available whenever your schedule allows.

Check out the Notable Book Voices on my blog for some language-specific mentor text profiles. And let us know in the comments below what books have mentored what aspects of your writing, or post a “Mentor Wanted” comment if you’re in need of an idea for a mentor book to help with something specific.

Happy reading and writing!

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Summer Reading: Cutting the Line, by Kristen C. Strocchia

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Most likely we’ve all heard the advice that great writers are great readers. Know your craft, which we do by reading authors who’ve succeeded there. So, like many will-be authors, I keep a To Read list and a stack of Read Next books handy. And especially during the summer, which, as a teacher, is my time of the year to assume the full time author role.

But there are always authors that cut my line. Ones that it doesn’t matter where I am in my list or stack, because when they publish something new, I’m going to put down every book I’m interested in or curious about to read. These authors captivate and inspire me. These are authors that I have fallen in love with.

Here are a few of my favorite line cutters for your guilty pleasure:

  • Sharon Cameron: immersive period details, romantic tension, and suspenseful intrigue.
  • Alley Carter: appropriate teen romance, laugh out loud humor moments, and suspenseful intrigue.
  • Megan Whalen Turner: expert world building with hints of multiculturalism, nonstop intrigue, suspense (are you seeing a pattern here?), and heart-grabbing characters.
  • Pam Muñoz Ryan: poignant Hispanic cultural stories (something I’m a sucker for), heartfelt characters, and powerful life changes.

Please share your recommendations for me in the comments below. (Who doesn’t want a new author to love?)

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