Creating the Multi-dimensional Character

From my forthcoming book, A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Fiction for Young Adults. E & E Publishing:

Most commercial fiction, including series stories, is plot driven.  This means that “the plot’s the thing!” Such books are often adventure stories — page turners — in which readers can hardly wait to find out what happens next. The protagonist is a character a few years older than the reader and usually has qualities the reader admires: curiosity, bravery, good looks, and the ability to get in and out of trouble without a scratch.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is character driver. This means that everything that happens hinges on who the character is. I don’t mean name and address. I’m talking about what goes on under the skin. The protagonist will operate on a deeper level than in commercial fiction, and the change that occurs in this character will include a loss of innocence that is directly related to coming of age.

In literary fiction, voice is crucial. Voice is more than the noise the vocal chords produce, though tone and inflection are part of the effect. Voice is the total value system of a character, delivered to the reader through narrative description, dialogue, dialect, interior monologue, outside observation, and action and reaction.

Not only must the main character have a strong voice, but important members of the supporting cast, as well as walk-ons, should be recognizable by physical description, action/reaction, and the way they put words together.

When I begin a middle grade or young adult novel, I create a cast of characters, using as many pages as I need to record information about each one. I start with their names (which often change as the book develops), then go on to vital statistics, their likes and dislikes, their desires. As they begin to take shape, so do the individual voices begin to emerge. If I have trouble with a particular voice, I ask that character to write something.. For example, when I was writing Straight Along a Crooked Road, Luanna wrote in a journal and told me how she felt about leaving her home in Vermont. Sometimes I interview characters by asking questions about things they like or dislike. Other times, I ask them to write blank verse telling what people think they are like, followed by what they believe they are like.

Developing characters is an adventure in which there are many surprises. I don’t like to be a stage director; instead, I like to put my characters on the stage and watch what they do next. That’s what makes fiction writing fun!


5 responses to “Creating the Multi-dimensional Character

  1. Marjorie Flathers

    Very well-said, Marilyn. This is such a clear explanation of the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction. The difference between these two aspects of fiction isn’t often explained so cleary and thoroughly, and writers are often confused about it. If this is a sample of the “gems” inyour new book, it’s sure to be a hit!

  2. Marilyn,
    Thank you for this thorough definition of character and voice; especially voice. I hear that word a lot in workshops for writers and artists and you helped clarify its meaning by summarizing all the elements that contribute to it.

  3. Marge and veronica — thank YOU for those kinds words!

  4. WHEN is this wonderful book going to be in our hands? What a marvelous teacher you are!

  5. shirleyshibley

    I agree with the other comments, especially referring to your book. I want and need that in my hands as soon as possible!


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