Monday, August 2, 2010

17 Conference Round-Up: Developing Your Craft: Character

It's our pleasure to introduce our first ever conference post from outside of the United States! The SCBWI Western Canada Chapter is currently hosting a series of workshops entitled Developing Your Craft. One recent workshop focused solely on character development, and featured Publisher Crystal Stranaghan, of Gumboot Books. Please welcome Ronda Payne, who kindly offered to tell us all about this terrific event. If you have recently attended, or plan on attending an SCBWI event and would like to share your take-aways, please let us know.

Creating solid, believable characters can be a challenge for writers at any level. Whether working within your usual genre or branching into something new, you must create characters that resonate with the reader.

Because I’ve struggled with having believable characters consistently live on my pages, I was excited to attend the SCBWI Western Canada Character workshop in the “Developing Your Craft” workshop series. Led by publisher, Crystal Stranaghan, of Gumboot Books, this July session was filled with great ways to help your characters come to life.

Crystal started by asking us to think about books with characters that lingered. What a great exercise! Take a few minutes now and think about it – what book had a character that stuck with you? Our answers ranged from Anne of Green Gables to Jane Eyre and more current fictional people like the main character in “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” by Alan Bradley. See Bradley’s website at

Once our group of six had planted the focus of great characters in our heads, the learning began. As Crystal explained, details of a character include:

- Physical appearance

- Environmental factors (geography, household structure, etc)

- Core beliefs and values

- Choice and actions under stress (who are they really when there’s no time to think – only respond)

From these points, we explored a number of exercises that helped us to create strong, believable characters. Here are some of the tips I took away:

- You MUST interview your character. Write out questions that reveal critical pieces of who your character is. Once prepared, answer the questions AS your character. So instead of answering “she would smile”, answer, “I would smile”. A sample character interview is available on Crystal’s blog at

- Use different coloured recipe cards or sticky notes to list each character’s traits. Perhaps your young heroine would be on pink cards, her mail sidekick on blue cards and the antagonist, green cards. As you write your story, put a check mark beside each trait as you use it to prevent overuse and ensure you are giving a full complete picture.

- Grab images online or from magazines that represent your character. You’ll find it much easier to visualize them doing, or not doing, certain things when you can see them in front of you.

- It’s best to focus on the whole character. Think about hands, legs, teeth – not just face and hair.

- A unique point Crystal made was that we notice the small things that are different in a person when we’ve seen them a million times. In the case of our female heroine, she would notice a hair cut, a new pair of shoes, or a missing tooth on her sidekick. Use this to your advantage when revealing what your character sees. They can see the things that are different.

- Always be current with your descriptions. Don’t describe your teen as a greaser, Mom as having crimped hair or other references lost in time. The twist to this is that these references are fine if explained or in a historical story.

- The environmental factors a character faces reveals much of how they perceive their situation and how they fit or contrast it. For example, a child whose parents have separated may find themselves living in a very different neighbourhood when living on just Mom’s income.

- Core beliefs and values include religion and how it impacts the character’s thoughts’ physical and emotional safety; a sense of self; their perceived rol in the world and; the internal moral compass.

- As discussed in the workshop, the fun starts when your character is pushed to their “line” of morality. What do they do when they reach that point? You’ll create conflict and interest by applying these stressors to your character. They need moments where something changes within them. Thus, when you interview your character at the end of the piece, there should be some slight variations from the interview at the start.

Now, let’s use Crystal’s examples, and words! Let’s add heat and stir! Ask your character for a response to the following:

- Your family is fighting, what is your response?

- You’re getting a C- in math

- You’ve lost your dog / cat

- Brussel sprouts are being served for dinner

- Your best friend is moving away

While it is difficult to summarize all of the great tips and hints from this workshop, one point that stuck out for me was that you need to know your character – inside and out – so that your reader will too.

A writer since she could hold a pen, Ronda Payne is passionate about her craft. In 2007, she kissed ‘real jobs’ goodbye and began her true occupation as a full time copywriter and freelancer. A regular contributor to “Country Life in BC” and “Ihr” (Integrated Health Retailer), Ronda continues to grow in her career by helping businesses find the right words and helping publications deliver meaningful content. Though she doesn't have a writer's website yet, she can be found blogging at

Ronda joyfully lives in Maple Ridge BC in yet another renovation project home with her husband and their pets.


  1. Great character development tips! Thanks for sharing Rhonda's notes from Crystal's SCBWI workshop.

  2. Thanks for posting about your workshop! Sounds like a good one.

  3. Nice roundup. I never thought of checking off the times I use certain aspects of a character to prevent overuse. I like that. Thanks.

  4. Great post! Thanks!
    In my current WIP I don't think I mention the physical characteristics of my MC at all. Aside from her approximate height in relation to her guy, and that she has dark hair. But so far those who have read it, describe her to me almost exactly the way I see her. Should I add more physical mentions? The story is told in her first person and I just don't see her thinking about her own looks. She's not that sort of girl.

  5. Sounds like it was a terrific conference! These are great tips about knowing your characters. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thanks so much - these are awesome tips. Making the character believable is our most important job. :)

  7. Clara, Laura, thank you for the positive feedback! It was a great session and so hard to include everything we learned in the post!

  8. salarsen, I know! Isn't that a fabulous tip? I just finished reading "Gemma" by Meg Tilley and she used a similar phrase about the main character twice. While writing she probably thought it was fine, but because I was so engrossed in the book, it really stuck out, so I think Crystal's tip was an amazingly good one we can all use!

  9. L.J. well that's the thing isn't it? When we're writing, sometimes the character's behaviour is more than enough of a picture for us. We don't need to see her exactly as you do in order to feel that she is the person you intended. If the character doesn't need a lot of physical description, don't worry - don't let it bog you down.

  10. Laura, Jemi, thanks so much for your input. It was such a great session. I completely loved it!

  11. another excellent post! i can't thank you guys enough!

  12. Tahereh, thank you for the feedback! So glad you enjoyed the post!

  13. These were some excellent tips, thanks so much!

  14. My pleasure Julie! Glad you enjoyed the tips!

  15. great tips here. I particularly like the idea of finding images off the net of people who might look similar to your character. That helps to cement the image of the character in the writer's mind.
    W.I.P. It: A Writer's Journey

  16. Ronda did an AMAZING job sharing out this helpful advice. It was a thrill for us to have our first ever conference round-up from outside of the U.S. Thank you everyone for supportive comments. Thanks Ronda for the generous blog post!

    Martina & Marissa

  17. Gosh, I'm blushing. Really, it was Crystal's excellent session the made the tips come through loud and clear!

    Lynda, I agree - the picture idea is one I'm going to use myself.

    :) Thanks so much everyone!


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