Susan Britton is the author of the middle-grade fantasy The Treekeepers (Dutton 2003). Currently she is working on an adult novel about Kateryn Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VII. Here are her thoughts for what makes an interesting story:
“When I’m thinking up a story, I’m usually worried about plot: how will I keep the reader glued to the page? It seems an impossible task. But lately I’ve turned my mind to considering character. I was goaded into this change of focus by a remark I encountered somewhere in cyberspace, something about how when you think of a book you love, you will find you are thinking of a character you love, not a plot, or theme, or fine writing. You think of Jo, Amy, Meg, and Beth, not the plot or language use of Little Women. This rings true for me.
“Here’s an idea for creating memorable characters that I’m trying to use these days. It’s an offspring of the common writer’s trick “character tagging” where you identify a character by a certain attribute, such as continual nose blowing or blinking fast or saying “nope” a lot. The idea is to push the tagging farther and deeper—let’s call it deep character tagging. You think up a unique small detail tag that works in a large metaphorical way, and so is able to evoke the whole spirit of the character. Then you mention it at least three times, sometimes dozens of times. For example, in The Book Thief, Papa is continually described as having silver eyes (sometimes said to be like rain as I recall.) His eyes embody much that we slowly learn about Papa—that he is a tragic hero, that he is of great worth, that he is an almost magical presence. A deep character tag should give the character a sort of mythical depth in the reader’s imagination. The villain can benefit from this sort of detail too.
“One way I generate deep character tags is to note specific things about the people in my life. I list them in a sort of character detail pantry to raid at need. The richest tags seem to be those that capture and evoke my love for that person. For example, my husband has this way of springing as he walks that comes from his optimism and energy. I gave his bouncing stride to Farwender, the father character in The Treekeepers. Farwender’s walk renders the joie de vivre that is his signature trait.
“For me, it works best to create characters from real people, not abstract notions or horoscope charts or psychological profiles. Sometimes I think of several people who are similar in character and smoosh them together, gathering typical body language from one person, manner of speech and attitude from another, a flaw from another. Bird, the heroine of The Treekeepers, is a mixture of my son Josh, my niece Anna Rose, and my good friend Bonnie. All three are fierce, risk-taking survivors with tender hearts.
“Here are some observations from my character tag pantry, some of which might serve as a deep character tags: A small boy with a point blank unflinching stare. A young teen who loves to serve food to people. A little girl who is always skipping and twirling; she has this lightness to her. An 11-year-old with the writing voice of a 70-year-old man. A girl with a way of hugging you, holding on to you, and not letting you go when it’s time to leave. A boy who whatever happens is pretty sure it just isn’t fair.
“So, dear reader, what are some observations from your character pantry? What are some thoughts that help you create a character? I would love to hear them.”
Susan can be contacted at: @susanbritton.com.