Sunday, October 13, 2013

5 Building an Unforgettable Character by Kathryn Lasky

Today we are honored to have the unbelievably talented and creative author of the beloved children's series, Guardians of Ga'Hoole and the Newberry Honor book Sugaring Time. Her newest YA book is the The Extra. Please welcome and get excited for Kathryn Lasky! 

Building an Unforgettable Character 

by Kathryn Lasky 

The question is character--how do you build a character? When I was a high school student back at the dawn of the Pleistocene, a favorite resource of high school English teachers I am loathe to say was the Reader's Digest, and a favorite item in the Reader's Digest was a feature was one called The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Ever Met. We were required to read the article and then write a one or two page essay on the most unforgettable character we had ever met. The idea behind all this was that we were supposed to learn some practical rules for character description. However the rules I gleaned seemed entirely superficial. The end result was not so much a character as a caricature. 

So when I came to writing my own stories some years later I had to try and forget all those old rules and find not just rules but new paths for discovering characters and new ways of building a character in a story. The first thing that I realized was that characters are not out there; they are inside of us. These characters are not going to be found by globe trotting authors. They are discovered by ordinary people within the context of one's own personality and experience. And that does not mean you are writing about yourself. But I do feel that we all have characters running around inside of us that we would like to be, or perhaps at least like to explore and see what their potential is. It’s a kind of healthy version of multiple personality disorder that authors should cultivate.

The parts that are truly me in a character are the person's weaknesses not their strengths. It is the impatience, the fears, the short temper, the capacity to delude oneself that serve so well in the development of a character. Another helpful deficiency is my capacity to pretend that something isn't happening, to avoid rather than confront, or if one does confront it to totally loose one's cool. It's rarely grace, but more often awkwardness that goes into my characters. It is vulnerability rather than fortitude. It's impetuosity rather than clear logical thinking. And perhaps most important of all it was that constant feeling of being left out, as a young kid, as a teenager, that has been a real force in forging my characters. 

That is not to say that other more positive qualities are absent from my characters--not at all. Those qualities might be there but it is not the part that comes from me. If these characters, or rather aspects of them are inside you, it is your job as a writer to bring them out and make them breathe. They can't just float around like the astronauts do in space on thin tethers. They must have background, context. 

How do you get that? Well some assembly is required and that means it begins with research, from building with little things, the minutiae of life. You establish a sense of place through the research and then you show your character experiencing that environment on not just a physical level but an emotional one.

My new book The Extra tells the story of Lilo Friwald, a gypsy girl who is picked from a lineup in a concentration camp by Hitler’s favorite filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to be an extra in a dramatic film she is making. Could I have ever been half as strong, half as brave as Lilo? Her feelings of fear, or as a gypsy of being an outsider, different, a ‘freak’, her terror at what the Nazis are doing to her mother is the stuff of my worst nightmares.

The cardinal rule upon which all major literary characters' lives depend is that of change -- every major character in a book must change in some way. What makes a hero is that character's ability to gather strength and grow, or at least want to grow even if he/she cannot. I feel that what makes a villain is the lack of that capacity to grow or change. Leni Riefenstahl was the perfect villain because she was so blinded by her vanity that she was completely incapable of changing. If a character like Leni does not change it must be a deliberate choice on the part of the writer. If it is not a deliberate choice--it instantly becomes bad writing. The character is flat, has no depth and we shall not care about him or her. In conclusion one might say that I build my characters by appealing to my inner lesser angels and then hope that my aspirations toward my non-existent greater ones might help a character take flight.


Kathryn Lasky is the Newbery Honor author of over one hundred fiction and nonfiction books for children and young adults. Her books range from critically acclaimed nonfiction titles such as Beyond the Burning Time and True North to the wildly popular Guardians of Ga'hoole fantasy series about owls. 

She loves owls and researching their behavior and natural history. Luckily Lasky lives quite close to Harvard University and the department of ornithology. She consulted with the scientists there frequently. 


The Extra

Is the chance to serve as an extra for Hitler’s favorite filmmaker a chance at life — or a detour on the path to inevitable extermination?
One ordinary afternoon, fifeen-year-old Lilo and her family are suddenly picked up by Hitler’s police and imprisoned as part of the "Gypsy plague." Just when it seems certain that they will be headed to a labor camp, Lilo is chosen by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to work as a film extra. Life on the film set is a bizarre alternate reality. The surroundings are glamorous, but Lilo and the other extras are barely fed, closely guarded, and kept in a locked barn when not on the movie set. And the beautiful, charming Riefenstahl is always present, answering the slightest provocation with malice, flaunting the power to assign prisoners to life or death. Lilo takes matters into her own hands, effecting an escape and running for her life. In this chilling but ultimately uplifting novel, Kathryn Lasky imagines the lives of the Gypsies who worked as extras for the real Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, giving readers a story of survival unlike any other.

The Guardians of Ga'Hoole

Pushed from his family's nest by his older brother, barn owl Soren is rescued from certain death on the forest floor by agents from a mysterious school for orphaned owls, St. Aggie's. With new friend, clever and scrappy Gylfie, he uncovers is a training camp for the leader's own nefarious goal

Wolves of The Beyond

A spinoff from the owl's of Guardians of Ga'hoole introduces Faolan, newborn wolf pup with a twisted leg. The harsh code of the pack demands such weakness be abandoned on a desolate hill. But alone in the wilderness, Faolan does not perish - a tale of survival, courage, and love triumphant.

Amazon | IndieBound | Goodreads


  1. "In conclusion one might say that I build my characters by appealing to my inner lesser angels and then hope that my aspirations toward my non-existent greater ones might help a character take flight."

    Such a perfect way to express it -- appealing first to our lesser angels. :)

  2. Wow! I knew my characters came from within, but I never contemplated the fact that the villain's refusal to change must be a deliberate choice made by the writer. I'll need to keep that in mind as I move forward.

  3. Great points! And THE EXTRA sounds like a fascinating book. Congrats on its release!

  4. Fantastic explanation and advice - all rolled into one! Congrats on the release, too.

  5. Wonderful post. Thanks for posting it. I can't wait to read The Extra. It sounds incredible.


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