08 May

5 Reasons Why Moms Matter in Children’s Literature

Posted in Character, Kid Lit, Literature, Teen Lit, Writing

The first thing you learn when writing for children and teens is that you have to get rid of the parents.  With parents or other adults around, the kids don’t have as many opportunities to go on adventures and get into trouble.  The easiest way to solve this problem is to kill off (or otherwise dispose of) the parents.  I find, though, that getting rid of the parents altogether is often a mistake because parents matter in children’s literature.  Moms matter.  So today on Mother’s Day, I thought I’d do a little ode to why moms matter in Kidlit and YA.
1.  They provide conflict.  Read any of Carolyn Mackler’s novels and you’ll find that the central conflict for the teen protagonist often revolves around her relationship with her mother.  In The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, Virginia has to find her own identity, independent of the identity that her mother tries to steer her toward.
2.  They can incite a story.  In Sarah Beth Durst’s Ice the story really begins when Cassie gives up her own freedom in order to free her mother from the trolls.  If it had not been for her mother trapped in the troll castle, the story never would have unraveled from there.
3.  They provide a safe place in a world of chaos.  Though Katniss’ mother doesn’t play a huge role in The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), she does provide a safe place, a home base.  In the first book of the trilogy, the mother doesn’t appear very much, but in Catching Fire, when Gale is wounded, she springs into action with her healing skills.
4.  And did I mention the conflict?  In Coe Booth’s Tyrell, the mother’s inability to get her act together and take care of her family is what pushes Tyrell into his caretaker role.  If the mother had been a regular, responsible mother, then Tyrell wouldn’t need to take care of his younger brother and he never would have come up with the plan that drives the story.
5.  Finally, even when they’re not around, the mother’s presence can be felt.  Perhaps the best example of a mother who has a strong impact on the protagonist is Lily, Harry’s mother in the Harry Potter series.  While we never see Lily, but we know her selfless sacrifice is partly what protects Harry throughout the story.
To all the mothers, moms and mommies out there, you’re awesome!  Despite the scuffs and struggles, remember: protagonists would not exist without their mothers.
To my own Mami: this one’s for you.


09 Apr

Sprint #2: Working With Character

Posted in Character, DIY MFA, Writing Sprint

This week, we talked about characters and how to come up with new ones or use existing characters to develop ideas.  Now today, I’d like you to take some time to apply what you learned about your characters to your own work-in-progress (WIP).  Here’s an exercise to get you started:

  • Choose a character.  Write down his/her name.
  • What does your character want most in the world?
  • What is standing in his/her way?
  • Name 3 of your character’s biggest weaknesses.
  • Come up with a situation that would make your character struggle.
  • Now think of something even worse and put your character in that scenario.
  • Write a scene or two of your character in that situation.

Hint: If you can’t think of a situation, look at your character’s weaknesses and the obstacles to getting what he/she wants.  Use them to come up with a situation.  Examples: If your character desperately wants to be part of a family, make her an orphan and put her in a horrible foster-family situation.  If your character’s weakness is his short temper, put him in a situation where he’s constantly being provoked.

Don’t be afraid to let your character suffer.  Often we can become protective of our characters (especially if we like them) and we might resist making life difficult for them.  Today you have permission to make life difficult for your character.

Tweet or comment and tell me how YOU made life difficult for your character today.  And don’t forget to grab a badge after you do your sprint!

Weekly Check-In:  How has Week 1 of DIY MFA been for you?  Have you gotten some good writing done?  What has been most helpful?  What would you like to see more of?

Don’t Forget:


08 Apr

YA Cafe: 5 Reasons Your YA Character Might Flop

Posted in Character, Reading, Teen Lit, YA Cafe

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I’m your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We’ve also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today’s Special: What are your favorite characters in teen literature?

The truth is, I don’t really have a favorite character in teen literature, but I have lots of characters I dislike.  Some I even hate.  Like Holden Caulfield, Alaska from Looking for Alaska, and Harry Potter (especially in book V but, pretty much throughout the latter half of the series).  These characters got me to thinking, what makes me like YA characters or hate them?  And if a character doesn’t work, what’s the reason behind it.

Your YA Character May Flop Because He/She is…

1) Pathologically Self-Centered.  OK, let me start by saying that everybody is at least a little bit egocentric; that’s normal.  What’s not normal is when a character is so pathologically self-centered that he or she doesn’t care about anyone else.  At all.  Not even a little bit.  Take Alaska from Looking for Alaska: she’s so wrapped up in this persona of “traumatized-and-depressed teen” that she couldn’t care less how her actions affect the people who care about her.  Of course, her quirkiness makes her endearing at times so that’s her saving grace.  But if you really want to make your character the worst YA character ever, you need to make sure he has no endearing qualities whatsoever.

2) Pathologically Quirky.  More than the egocentric protagonist, one type of character I detest is the I’m-so-unbelievably-quirky-even-I-can’t-stand-it character.  A mild form of this character is Stargirl, who is quirky in a charming, funny way.  But if you push this quirkiness too far, you end up having a character who’s annoying and just plain weird.  And seriously, if your character’s in high school–don’t you think she has enough problems already? 

3) Pathologically Stupid.  Some characters have plenty of good things going for them, but they are in the habit of making one bad decision after another.  Good ol’ Harry Potter falls into this category (though despite his lack of sense, he still seems to come out on top and that makes him all the more infuriating).  My favorite Harry Potter moment happens in the first book when Neville Longbottom earns the winning points for Gryffindor by standing up to Harry and his buddies for breaking the rules.  If you want your character to annoy the living daylights out of your reader have your protagonist always make bad decisions, then make everything turn out OK for him anyway.  It’ll drive your readers nuts.

4) Pathologically Whiny and Self-Righteous.  With this rule we return to my favorite least-favorite character: Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye.  He whines from the moment the book starts to the very last scene.  He believes he’s entitled to whatever he wants.  He thinks he’s SO above everyone around him.  *rolls eyes*  As if.  Self-righteous characters who think they’re so much better than everyone else are easy to hate.  Add a dash of whiny entitlement and you’ll have a thoroughly despicable character in the making.

5) Not A Teen.  That’s right.  If you want your book to have the worst YA character of all time, you need to make the protagonist not be a teenager.  Try writing a YA novel about an eleven-year-old.  Or maybe a twenty-something frat boy.  Because teens just love to read about middle schoolers almost as much as they’re dying read about adults (if you could call a twenty-something frat boy an “adult” but that’s beside the point.)  While there are many crossover books that are originally marketed to adults but have teen protagonists, I am hard-pressed to think of one truly-YA (i.e. not crossover) book with a protagonist younger than thirteen or older than eighteen.

What do you think?  What other reasons are there for YA characters that just don’t work?  Tell me because I’m dying to know.  Especially since I want to make sure my main character doesn’t reek of awfulness.  (Yes, I know it’s an ulterior motive, but help a girl out, ‘k?)

Want to read a post that’s actually about favorite YA characters?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her favorites on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us who your favorite characters are!

Also, the winner of last week’s contest (for a signed copy of BITTEN by R.L. Stine) is K.V. Briar!  Congratulations!  *throws confetti*  Thank you to all who entered the contest.  K.V., please email me at iggiNgabi[at]gmail[dot]com with your address so I can mail you your prize.  


07 Apr

Acrostic Character Bio

Posted in Character, DIY MFA, Process, Writing, Writing Exercises

Now that you’ve gotten to know your characters a bit more, you’ll need an easy way to keep track of all this new information.  After all, if you’re writing on-the-go, you can’t exactly tote around stacks of pages with character dossiers.  This is where the Acrostic Bio-in-a-Nutshell comes in.  This technique forces you to choose the most important details of your character and organizes it in a compact way.

First a word on acrostics.  I got the idea for this exercise from acrostic poems written by Lewis Carroll, in which the first letter of each line spells the name of the person to whom the poem is dedicated.  It occurred to me that you could use the same technique to organize information in a character dossier, using the character’s name as the basic structure.  Here follows an example of a character bio for one of the character’s I’ve worked with for a story that is now in press.

Lucy Marie Watson

Loyal to her friends
Unaware her best friend (Jake) has a crush on her
Crush on Ralph (leader of her group of friends)
Young (age 11, 6th grade)

Moral compass of the group
Always wears hair in a pony tail
Incredibly close to her dad
Efficient (plans ahead)

Willing to take risks and break rules if it’s for a good reason
Two sisters: Danielle (older) and Caroline (younger)
Smart (smartest kid in her group, though the boys would never admit it)
Obedient (usually) so when she breaks rules, she feels guilty
No idea she what to do about her crush (not even aware she has one)

Notice how most of the information is focused on the interpersonal relationships (not a lot of appearance or demographic detail).  For Lucy the relationships were the most important part of her character development so the acrostic bio reflects that.  If your character has a unique appearance or a job that is central to his/her character, then those things are likely to be the ones that pop up on the acrostic.

I like to write my acrostic bio-in-a-nutshell on an index card.  That way I can carry it with me in my notebook and have it right at my fingertips when I need it.

Homework: Choose one of your characters (preferably one you’ve worked with this week) and write an acrostic bio that reflects who that character is at their core.

Then tell me, how has your study of character gone this week?  Discover something new about a character or two?  Anything surprise you?


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