Writers: Pin Down Your Alter Ego(s)

Give your garden sunshine, water and food. Watch it thrive.
Whatever the origin of your character, whether it be a kid you knew in your childhood, a composite of kids you've known as in the character of Tom Sawyer who was based on a number of boys, or other observations you've made of kids; identifying and understanding the different sides of your own personality can only help.

A helpful resource in character development is Elaine Marie Alphin's (1955-2014) book, Creating Characters Kids will Love. Alphin, author of Ghost Cadet and Ghost Soldier, as well as YA books and books for very young children, said in an interview, "There's a little of me in just about every character I write. I think there has to be, in order to give each character life." 
Some of your character creations may surprise you. Those are the best ones. Alphin said, "This comes into play when you try to make the character do something you thought was essential, but he refuses to do it! He wants to do something else. He has just surprised you. This is a wonderful moment! When it happens, let him do it and see what happens. Often he'll do something that's more effective than what you had in mind in the first place."
Keep a Character Journal
A good way to begin is to keep track of your "persons of interest." Describe the way he dresses, her mannerisms, what attracted him to you, etc. In her book, Alphin goes into great detail about capturing what the people were like in your childhood, the things they did and what you thought about them.   
  • Who were you as a child? Were you the oldest, youngest or in the middle? An only child?
  • Write in detail how you felt about where you were in your family, what your family members were really like relative to their relationship with you.
Ways to Inform Character Creation

1. Make your character care:
  • Alphin: The easiest way to make the reader care is to make the main character care. Something must be at stake for the character - something he wants, something he needs, something he desires, something he'll lose if he fails. The more critical the problem is to the main character, the more eagerly the reader will turn the page, desperate to find out What happens next?
  • What you can do: Make a list of what you care about. Your character can find ways to show that he cares about these things, too.
  • Make your concerns personal: My concerns center around loving and respecting nature and encouraging children to feel the same way. All my stories have taken place in natural surroundings (still, that includes apartment living, as in many children's lives, but having much of the action take place outside, hearing birds, etc.) Animals, plants, trees (insects, the sky, mountains, grass--the list is endless!) become a backdrop to the action.
2. Create a plot that propels your character to find a solution to a problem, solve a mystery, and in the process change to become a better person.
  • Alphin:Character motivation is the heart of what makes a story work or not! Writers are like directors in a play - we know what we want our character to do and where we want them to move to, so we're tempted to just pick them up and move them around in order to get them there, much like pulling the strings of a group of marionettes. But if that's all we do, we end up with two-dimensional characters who are less believable than a row of marionettes dangling from their storage hooks. Characters come alive for readers when we as writers know their motivation - why they want to do or say what the writer wants them to do or say. A character's thought process has to be as believable as our own.
  • What you can explore: What issues did you and your childhood friends face? Do other children you know face? Visit and re-visit these issues. Chances are these are the same that kids have always faced, described in a nutshell as "Children's Basic Needs," by Lee Wyndham in Writing for Children and Teenagers:
  • The need to love and be loved.
  • The need to belong.
  • The need to achieve.
  • The need for security--material, emotional, spiritual.
  • The need to know.
3. Throughout the book there are exercises that are great for ways to develop your characters, as in this example:
  • Choose a situation; write a conversation between two characters. Next, make one character your main character and add that character's thoughts and feelings. Next, add the action. Then, show each character as he or she moves or gestures. Use facial expressions to reflect his or her feelings.
  • In my current WIP, I've used this example to analyze conversations between and among my characters. Some places skimped on one or more elements, i.e., I left out my mc's thoughts or feelings or how one of the characters moved, gestured or made a facial expression to reflect their feelings.
3. At your story's resolution, show how your character has changed and grown.
  • In the chapter on character growth, Alphin describes in detail how to show how your character grows and changes; an element I find particularly challenging. The example that has helped the most is in the beginning of the book under the subheading, "Characters do things."
  • Alphin includes a scene from her book, The Ghost Cadet, about how Benjy, her 12-year-old mc climbed down a roof for the first time. She writes, "You can tell that Benjy is afraid from his slow progress, and that he probably hasn't done this before from his awkward movements. You can see his frustration about being short. You can see the way he talks himself into doing what he doesn't want to do . . . the next time he has to climb something" he'll be more confident.
  • My mc is unfamiliar with country life and in a similar scene she climbs a dark, narrow staircase, not knowing where it leads, and finds a trap door that leads to the roof. Alphin's description of how Benjy has learned from his first scary experience has helped me show better how my mc can gain confidence from hers. From there, I've been better able to show her become more adept at each new thing she tries until she is fully capable by the end to do what it takes to solve the mystery.
  • Alphin: In another example, Marc wants to find the treasure in order to hold onto a person who may be gone from his life. Perhaps he will discover not only hidden treasure, but also the hidden truth that friends sometimes go in different directions and that growing apart isn't the end of the world, because you're open to new friendships. Or perhaps his friend will get caught up in the search, and Marc will realize that they're still friends after all. His friend is the real treasure, and he just needed to reach out to him in order to hold on. Either way, Marc doesn't just find the treasure, he grows and changes because of the actions he takes in order to achieve his goal. His inner problem is what makes the story unique and meaningful.
  • What I've learned: What began as curiosity about the meaning of alter ego(s) led me to discover Alphin's terrific book and embark upon more in-depth thought about who my characters really are. Not just sides of my personality struggling to show themselves, but living, thriving beings with backgrounds, feelings, desires, likes and dislikes.
Photo: From Linda Wilson's collection, taken on a warm fall day in Alaska

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 100 articles for adults and children, and six short stories for children. Recently, she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction courses, picture book course and mystery and suspense course. She is currently working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on Facebook.



Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

I appreciate your list of children's basic needs. Also, I love the flowers

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Mary Jo. The book by Wyndham is helpful, too.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

So useful, Linda. Thanks for such a thought-provoking and helpful summary. Looking at all the courses undertaken in your bio--how do you manage to do so much?

Linda Wilson said...

I hope the info helps, Anne. Courses have been taken and used with WiP's. Need to start marketing now, yikes!

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