Begin Stories with your Character: A Workshop with Lois Ruby

Who will your character be?
Are your stories plot-driven, or do you begin with a character? Lois Ruby’s stories don’t take off until she has gotten to know her main character. At a recent Albuquerque Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, SCBWI, meeting, Lois shared her technique.

And what terrific characters Lois creates! One look at her books, and you will read a “heart-pounding romance about a contemporary girl, Lori, who falls crazy-in-love with Nathaniel, a soldier in the Battle of Gettysburg.” The only hitch is that she’s very much alive, and he’s a ghost. (Rebel Spirits, Scholastic/Point, 2013); an Austrian brother and sister who survive World War II in Shanghai, China (Shanghai Shadows, Holiday House, 2006; a Bank Street Book of the Year, 2007, and a Kansas Notable Book, 2007; a homeless girl who can communicate with a police horse in New York, and many more vivid characters. (Visit to learn more about Lois and her books).

How does Lois create such intriguing characters?

Begin with What’s Going on Inside
Lois likes to know her character’s description, but before she gets to that, she pins down:
  • When they lived—where they fit into the context of history.
  • What is their backstory—doesn’t show up in story, but we need to know it.
  • What is their emotional status. For example:
    • Saying one thing and doing something else.
    • Laughing when not appropriate.
    • Quick to anger—how character expresses anger.
    • Tension when internal thoughts contrast with verbal response.
  • How the name fits the character. For example:
    • Molds the personality
    • Ethnicity
    • Geographical area they came from
    • Nicknames
    • Station in life
What’s on the Outside Comes Next
Lois arrived with armfuls of portraits (photos) of people she finds intriguing, cut out of magazines and kept in clear plastic sleeves. Each portrait raises questions. Each answer opens a window to develop and round out the character.
  •  Girl or boy
  •  Where does h/she live?
  •  Contemporary or historical?
  •  What is the family like?
  •  What does her voice sound like?
  •  What is the conflict in his life?
  •  Adventurer or not?
  •  Any annoying habits?
  •  Who is his greatest hero?
  •   Powerful or powerless?
  •  What are the moral limits? Skin Deep, Scholastic, 1994, currently out-of-print, is about a boy who is drawn to a hateful white supremacist group. His personality changed, and his girlfriend Laurel sees this and wonders if he can ever return to the boy she loved. Lois said she interviewed three skinheads to answer this question and was horrified, but she needed to know.
Our Turn
Lois ended the workshop by displaying random words on the projector screen:
High school yearbook
Dr. Dowd
ID bracelet
Baseball uniform
Barn animals

Participants were given a short time period to create a character-driven story using as many words as possible. It was fun to hear the different takes. My story evolved around a young man in his 30s flying to see his dad in the hospital after he had a heart attack, working on his job application, taking his dad’s ID bracelet to him (will he remember it?), etc.

Raised in California, Lois has called Texas and Kansas home, and now, lucky for us, she lives in Albuquerque. Her portrait-study technique has certainly yielded a solid collection of intriguing and diverse characters in her books.

A parting word about Lois’s only nonfiction book (so far), Strike! Mother Jones and the Colorado Coal Fields War, Filter Press, 2012. Mary Harris (Mother) Jones, was so concerned about the poor working conditions of a wide range of people from the 1870s through the 1920s—including, street car operators in New York and San Francisco, female bottle washers in Wisconsin, copper miners in Arizona, and the deplorable conditions of children working fourteen-hour days in the textile mills of Pennsylvania—that she called meetings and made speeches, urging workers to go on strike and fight for their rights. Authorities and industry leaders labeled her a troublesome agitator, and the story goes on. (Book is available on Amazon prime at a very reasonable price). Even in nonfiction, Lois has done it again: delighted readers with her knack for creating fascinating characters, and in the case of her nonfiction book, uncovering the story of this incredible woman.
Clipart courtesy of:

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 150 articles for adults and children, and several short stories for children. Her first book, Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery, a mystery/ghost story for children 7-11 years old, is hot off the press and will be available soon. Currently, she is hard at work on The Ghost of Janey Brown, Book Two in the series. Follow Linda at


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, thanks for sharing these helpful tips on creating a character that readers will want to get to know. It's wonderful how you share the information from all the writing workshops you go to!

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Karen. I've taken a step back while I continue to revise Book 1, to study some more. We have such a terrific SCBWI chapter here in Albuquerque. I've learned a lot and am glad I can pass it on.

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