This is the second installment of “What I learned at SCBWI” (The first part can be found here). Michelle Burke, Associate Editor at Knopf, an imprint of Random House, talked about creating well-rounded, fully developed YA characters. Much of what she said is stuff I read often on agency and writer’s blogs…and all of it bears repeating.
A strong character includes the following attributes:
- A strong narrative voice – yep, here is that voice thingy again. Michelle talked a lot about why 1st person works so well with YA – these characters are naturally self-reflective. But even in 3rd person stories, it is important to have a strong voice and connect with the reader from the first sentence (I will talk more on voice and beginnings in subsequent posts).
- Show, don’t tell – Hmm….I see another theme here. And I have to say, as the editors critiqued peoples first pages and participated in round-table critiques, this was another one of those reoccurring themes…show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell.
- Dialogue – this is a biggie with all the editors when they talked about YA…Authentic Dialogue. Most felt it was one of the hardest things to achieve and one of the most necessary to the story. When it is done right, it enhances the storyline, gives “voice” to the characters, and moves along the plot. When done poorly, it will completely pull you out of the story. Their suggestion – always ALWAYS read it OUT LOUD.
In addition to the essential attributes of a fully developed character, Michelle discussed some typical pitfalls she encounters in YA submissions that cross her desk:
- “stock” characters that are flat and not fully developed. The examples she used – the dumb jock, the mean cheerleader, the geeky girl/boy. Real people are complicated and seldom fit so neatly into some little label. Be sure characters are the same way.
- Characters that stop short emotionally – be sure to go “all the way” with your characters. If they are headed for disaster, let that unfold. If they are messy and complicated, good. Just be sure to be authentic with it.
So there you go…some aspects of the well-developed YA character.