From Paper to Pulse: Character with Heart by @TerraMcVoy 

Creating a character with real heart is hard.

It isn’t like slapping a wristwatch into a Tin Man and telling him he suddenly has one.

Writing a character who possesses true heart requires the same amount of dedication, the same kind of connection and patience, that a relationship with someone else who actually HAS a heart takes. It requires time, and honesty, and sometimes conversations you don’t think you can bear to get through. It demands understanding, and knowing, and letting yourself fall a little in love. (Even if  you aren’t, you know, romantic about them in That Way.)

thisisallyourfaultFiguring out how to  do this—how to write a character whose heart is real—is one of the most important things to me when it comes to writing. But it’s also one of the most complex. How do you do it? How do you really get in to someone in such an intimate way? How do you become more than Victor Frankenstein—not merely assembling the body parts and bringing the lighting, but also make something live?

When I step back to think about it, I —as I’m sure you do, too— get really, really intimidated.

So instead of getting overwhelmed by the Big Picture, I try to recall my poetry background and focus on the details.

Because, while we are all much more than the sum of our parts, those small parts—what we listen to, where we go, the things we care about day to day—can give others (and ourselves, really) a better idea of Who We Are.

So I start very, very basic. Asking the kinds of questions of my characters that I would ask anyone else I’m first getting to know. What is your favorite color? A movie that moves you? What you like to eat when you’re sad? It may seem silly (especially when you’re only trying to develop the stepmom who only appears three times in a story), but sometimes the best devil really is in these details.

To get you started with these questions, here’s a worksheet I give my students when we’re in the early stages of developing character, and ultimately story. You may not have answers to every single question, and some of them might seem irrelevant, but I find, for me, that asking what my character carries with him or her every day really can shine a light on bigger matters of heart.



But another thing I think a lot about when it comes to character, and heart, is relationships. Who are the most important people to my character? Best friend? Parent? Romantic love? Boss? Coach? Who is on their radar but to a lesser degree? A friend’s mom? A teacher? A sibling who now lives far away? Thinking about the important relationships in your character’s life will help determine their actions during the course of their story. For whom are they willing to fight? Who inspires them to hatred that leads to mistakes? The great Harry Potter, after all, may not have been moved to do what he did if it weren’t for his friends, his teachers, his parents, too.  Dobby.

indeepcoverpbSo here’s a map I draw for myself, connecting my main character (in the center) to the
Most Important People, and then the Second Most, while also connecting those Most Important People to each other. Because your mom certainly has an opinion of your girlfriend. Your best friend has thoughts about your evil boss. And those connections might influence your decisions when it comes to all of them.

Of course I understand these two exercises may not be enough to fully animate a corpse. To do that takes a lot more time and practice than I can address in one lesson, but I do find that these detail exercises at least get the muscles twitching. Get my characters acting and speaking in more complete ways so that I can see better who they really are. How they move. What they love.  It at least gets the two of us out the door on our first date together, where, I hope, with more questions and more conversations, we’ll both ultimately see each other’s real hearts. And fall in love.


  • Developing character relationships to better understand motivation.
  • Learning specific details about character in order to make them more complete and real.
  • Understanding that building character is the hardest and most complicated aspect of writing, but is worth the time.

photo credit: Jamie Allen

Terra Elan McVoy is the author of six acclaimed YA novels and two middle grade, most recently This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker from Katherine Tegen Books. She is also an independent bookseller and creative writing instructor, and lives in Atlanta GA with her husband and a lot of shoes. To learn more about Terra and her books visit

You can also find her on Facebook by clicking HERE. Or find her on Twitter = @TerraMcVoy, or Instagram = terraelanmcvoy

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Terra’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

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Crafting Characters We Can’t Help But Root For by @megan_shepherd

Have you ever heard the piece of writing advice that goes, “readers come for the plot, but stay for the characters?” This means that often times readers are drawn to a story by a cool premise or promise of a twist, but that by the time they finish reading, they soon forget the plot and are left with the memory of the characters. That’s because our minds love a good twisty, exciting plot, but our hearts love memorable characters.

Crafting strong characters begins with thinking about characters not as stiff creations with a certain height, eye color, or hometown (though it can certainly be a useful exercise to fill out character trait worksheets), but with looking at how they act in certain situations. For example, let’s say your main character is a third grader who sees two bigger boys bullying a stray dog. How he choses to respond to such a difficult situation will be much more informative about who he is as a person than a list of his favorite books or hobbies.

Here are three simple ways to create characters that readers will instantly care about:


It’s human nature to worry about people in danger. If you open a book about the Titanic, you are already hoping the characters survive the shipwreck. If a girl is being bullied in the opening pages of a story, you can’t help but hope she escapes unharmed. Instantly, we are rooting for these characters to thrive.

MS cageLikewise, it can be very effective to put your character in situation that is clearly unfair: a boy punished for his brother’s mistake, or a girl forced to sweep floors of her stepmother’s house. Readers find unfair situations deeply troubling, which makes them automatically root for your character to persevere, in some cases even before we know what your character’s name is.


MMD+final+cover+hi-resWe tend to like people with an upbeat, funny, kind-hearted attitude. And giving your character these traits is a great way to make your character likeable. However, not all characters have to be “likeable” in the strictest sense; it’s okay to have pessimistic, angry, complex, or sarcastic characters, as long as they are still relatable and sympathetic. A great way to make any type of character attractive to a reader is to have other characters value him or her. For example, a boy who comes across as gruff, but who has a little sister who adores him, instantly softens our hearts.

Likewise, if there are clearly nasty characters in your book—say, a mean stepsister or cruel teachers—who don’t like your character, it will make readers actually like your character more. Remember: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”


It’s also human nature to admire people with extraordinary gifts. That could be MS booksupernatural powers like the ability to fly, bend steel, or read minds. Such supernatural powers fascinate us and draw us in instantly. But it can be just as effective—perhaps even more so—when a character is highly skilled not through magic or a twist of fate, but because of the hard work they’ve put into mastering a skill. We can’t help but root for a small boy who studies karate diligently over years and wins a big competition. We want such characters to be rewarded for their hard work.

MSH35FULLsizedMegan Shepherd grew up in her family’s independent bookstore in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A New York Times bestselling author, Megan is the author of several acclaimed young adult series and the middle grade novel The Secret Horses of Briar Hill. She now lives and writes on a 125-year-old farm outside Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband, two cats, and an especially scruffy dog. To learn more about Megan an her books, click on these links to visit her BLOG AND WEBSITE  Follow her on TWITTER and like her FACEBOOK PAGE.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Megans’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.

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Play Cat’s Cradle: Making Character Connections with @RebeccaPetruck

Oft-quoted writing advice includes, “Put the manuscript in a drawer until you can read it with new eyes.” If you have time to do that, great. But there is another way to create distance and gain new perspectives on your work. I’ve called it “play cat’s cradle” especially for KidLit Summer School! 🙂

To play cat’s cradle you need a string tied into a loop by a knot. Without the knot, there is no loop, it is only string. The same is true of your main character and your story. Your main character is the knot—without him or her, your story is only a string of events. Every meaningful character in your story exists to effect change in the main character during the arc of the story. So a useful exercise for me is to follow the thread for how each character is connected not to the MC but to the MC’s change.

First, I ponder the knot, which for me has three elements: the MC’s Want, the MC’s Need, and Theme. Generally, the Want and Need are in conflict with each other, and that conflict shines a light on the Theme. Key words tend to pop up, and I use them and my trusty Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus to make connections.

The process is easiest to explain by example.

In my next book, Will Nolan Eats Bugs, Will’s Want is to be a good friend, which he identifies with being loyal, having someone’s back. His Need is to be a decent person, which requires he be loyal to himself and his personal values. Synonyms for “loyalty” include: allegiance, faithfulness, adherence, devotion, steadfastness, staunchness, trueheartedness, dependability, reliability, trustworthiness, duty, commitment, and patriotism. The key antonym is treachery.

All these words have the same connection—loyalty—yet watch what happens when I begin to group them by Will and the three key players who affect the most change in Will’s character.

Will: truehearted, steadfast, trustworthy.

Darryl (friend since kindergarten; overtly challenges Will’s personal values): staunchness, allegiance, duty, adherence. Darryl’s vision of loyalty is very much like patriotism, somewhat blind, owed, and any betrayal is like treason which makes Will a traitor.

Eloy (potential new friend; an ally, but one who calls Will on his crap): reliability, truehearted, trustworthy, dependability. Though Eloy has a growing loyalty to Will, he first and always has a deep loyalty to his family and self. He is very much in the camp loyalty is earned, not owed.

Hollie (Will’s sibling; is “betrayed” by Will’s actions): trustworthy, commitment, devotion, dependability. She can call Will an idiot, but no one else can. As family, loyalty is both owed and earned.

Grouping synonyms by character highlighted connections I hadn’t noticed, not only to Will but between the other characters.

cats cradle


(The pretty chart I drew just for KidLit Summer School!)

Darryl is the most overt antagonist, and now I see Why. Though the root word is the same for all, his approach to loyalty is very different from the others. Like Darryl, Hollie is betrayed by Will, yet her response to the betrayal is different because her sense of loyalty is rooted differently. Additionally, I see why Eloy and Hollie keep after Will, not abandoning him even when he acts like a doof—the three share similar senses of loyalty.

This bird’s eye view of the connections between my main character’s change helps me clarify what actions might be taken not only by Will but by all the characters. Now I have a great resource.

cats cradle 2. jpg

(The actual working chart; not as pretty, but useful.)

As I consider a scene, I hold it up to my chart and think, “Where is this on the thread? How does it pull at Will’s knot?” It also helps me think more intentionally about each character’s development. It’s not only that they do something to effect change in the MC, but also that I get why they do that something and how it pushes at the MC.

I hope this pre-writing exercise helps! And now I’m off to find more yarn…

PetruckR_headshotRebecca Petruck’s debut Steering Toward Normal is an American Booksellers Association New Voice and a Kids Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood and the L.A. Times also have spotlighted the MG novel. Petruck was a member of 4-H, a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her next book is Will Nolan Eats Bugs (Fall 2017).

This year we welcome Rebecca back for the third year in a row to STNKLSS to lead us in  #30mdares, online writing exercises where we motivate each other to write by setting aside 30 minutes and writing with a prompt Rebecca gives us. The only “rule” is to set a timer and go without stopping for 30 minutes. Look for more announcements about these fun events in future KLSS emails and blog posts! 


For now, follow Rebecca on twitter: @RebeccaPetruck, on Facebook: /rpetruck, and visit her website by clicking HERE.

KLSS Announcement: Webinar TONIGHT for pre-registered students at 8:00 pm, EST. Yes, the time is now 8:00 pm, EST.


Tara Lazar: Bring Out the ACT in CharACTer!


Tara Lazar

The curtain rises on your picture book manuscript. The audience, eyes wide, applauds with great anticipation. Is your three-act triumph ready?

As a former actress (sorry, no Academy Award credits to my name), I utilize my acting skills while writing. And you don’t have to be a practiced thespian in order to do so. Just think of the word “ACT” and its related words:

  • ACTion – how a character behaves
  • reACTion – how a character behaves to a specific situation
  • interACTion – how characters relate to each other

These are the three things your illustrator will be thinking about when they bring your picture book to life. So, you, as the main character’s puppeteer, should be thinking of these things as well. Not only thinking—but revealing—that your character exhibits a unique way of behaving.

Now, action is a tricky thing in picture books. You can’t describe everything away—remember, you’ve leaving the brushstrokes up to your illustrator. So what you have to dig for is emotion. Emotion informs actions. How you act when you’re happy is very different from how you act when you’re angry. Or afraid. Or lonely. Emotion will inform your illustrator and your readers.

Like Kathryn Erskine encouraged you to slip on your character’s shoes, I often stand up and act out the emotion—what the character is saying or doing—to see if it feels genuine. I say lines aloud and listen to the natural inflection of my voice. (Your family might think you’re crazy. But do it for your art.)

Then I pace through scenes. Is there something happening in each scene? If your character is standing still, in the same location, scene after scene, it makes for a boring book. There’s nothing new to illustrate each page turn. Going places or doing things is action.

Next, there’s reaction! Your character should be reacting to what’s happening. Is she nervous? Shy? Thrilled? Have you given your character something to work toward? To struggle through? The way your character reacts to the barriers in the story will make her unique and interesting.

For instance, in my upcoming book NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016), Norman is an unusual orangutan. When the young scientist in the story peels a banana, Norman freaks out! He screams! Noo-ooo-ooo! You’re ripping off that poor creature’s skin! And the illustrator’s sketch (which I just received this week!) shows Norman with a horrified expression. Norman’s reaction to the banana informs the reader that he’s not an ordinary animal.

Finally, how your characters relate to each other also serves your story well. Are they friends or enemies? How does their relationship change over time? Again, dig for the emotions. How do they feel when they speak to each other? Is it loud and messy, or quiet and controlled? Do they ignore each other?

In THE MONSTORE, toward the end of the book, pesky little sister Gracie says to Zack, You’re the best brother ever! Mbestbrotherevery illustrator took the emotion of that line and translated it into Gracie giving her brother a loving, eyes-closed bear hug, with Zack surprised yet bursting with affection. I didn’t write all that out, however. That’s too much to say in a picture book! I let Gracie’s words speak for themselves…and James Burks did the rest. (I know you’re going to ask if I wrote an art note for this scene—I did not! The words expressed the sentiment and James illustrated them far better than I ever could have imagined.)

That scene is the turning point in the story, when the siblings learn to cooperate instead of plot against each other. There is a new kind of interaction between them. And how did the story get there? Through the actions and reactions that came before.

So when you’re writing, think of ACT-ing, my dear summer school students. And when you’re finished with your manuscript, you can take a bow!

tarafall2011picStreet magic performer. Hog-calling champion. Award-winning ice sculptor. These are all things Tara Lazar has never been. Instead, she writes quirky, humorous picture books featuring magical places that adults never find.

Her debut picture book, THE MONSTORE, is available now from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. Her other books coming soon are:

  • LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (Random House Children’s, 2015)
  • 7 ATE 9: THE UNTOLD STORY (Disney*Hyperion, 2016)
  • NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016)

Tara is a member of SCBWI and speaks at conferences and events regarding picture books, brainstorming techniques, and social media for authors/ She is a life-long New Jersey resident. She lives in Somerset County with her husband and two young daughters. If they had a dog, it would be a small white fluffy thing named Schluffy. Contact Tara through her Website taralazar.comTwitter @taralazarPinterest, or Facebook

Tara is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.

And check out the Exercise Book for Tara’s tips on Bringing Out Your Character’s ACT!

Not registered for Kidlit Summer School yet? No worries! Click here to REGISTER.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, You are Your Characters After All

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

I’ve never been a big fan of the Snow White story. Abusive parents, runaway girls finding refuge with seven single men all living together…let’s just say it hit all the wrong buttons for me, you know?

Except, there was one thing about that story that totally resonated with me – the idea of a magic mirror. Imagine, looking into a mirror and having not your image reflected as you are, but as you want to be. One look and you get declared the fairest of them all. (That’s my idea of a fairy tale!)

Using a magic mirror is essentially what I do when I create my characters.

So often, my main character is:

  • Me, but funnier
  • Me, but cooler
  • Me, but more interesting
  • Me, but less disorganized
  • Me, but more capable

You get the idea, don’t you?

My characters talk like me. They think like me. They have the same concerns that I do. They stress about the same things and get excited about the same things.

When I look in the mirror, I see my characters. But because it’s a magic mirror, they’re magnified to be funnier, cooler, more interesting – whatever filter the mirror is adding that day.

Let me share some examples from my work.

Caltech Graduation

Caltech Graduation

Through most of my life, I’ve been pretty successful (I’m not bragging, as you’ll see in a moment…). I did well in school without trying. I got into all the colleges, and later all the graduate programs, that I wanted to without too much effort. Even when I had my first child, it took about 3 minutes and 6 pushes and the next morning I was back in my pre-pregnancy clothes. I was the type of person who expected that she would be successful, and therefore I was the type of person who actually was successful.

But then, I decided that I wanted to write books for children, even though I’d never written fiction in my life. I’ll be very honest, initially, I was absolutely certain that I would succeed, that this venture would go as swimmingly as everything else always had.

Of course, publishing is not that easy.

For the first time, my hard work was not met with success, but with rejection. For the first time, people ddn’t look at me and expect me to succeed – they thought I was crazy for trying to do what I wanted to do.



Princess Bea from PIRATE PRINCESS is the kind of girl that has big dreams that involve the high seas, swashbuckling, and treasure hunts. She’s going to be pirate – even though she’s a princess who has never been on a ship in her life. She’s absolutely sure she will succeed, until her dreams – and her lunch – come crashing down in front of everyone.

In your mind’s eye, can you see the reflection that faced me when I looked into my magic mirror?

There were so many moments in my early publishing career that I wanted to give up. But like Princess Bea, I learned that even when faced with a bleak future, believing in yourself can make your dreams come true. When I wrote Bea’s character, I gave her the resolve and perseverance I strove to have myself. She is me, but pluckier, gutsier, braver. But she definitely is me.


Obviously, not every single character is based on me. Every once in a while, I base a character on someone I know. Often, I’ll prop my children in front of that magic mirror and see what gets reflected. Sometimes, it’s my friends. These people I love become better, stronger, more when I turn them into my characters.

Here’s another example from my own work.

IMG_5526I have two tween/teen daughters, and they have a lot of tween/teen grand plans. Unfortunately, they have a younger brother who is far less tween/teen and far more chaos and destruction. I’ve watched two daughters trying to be patient with their younger brother – before ultimately growing so frustrated that they demand that we return him and get a toaster instead. When I plopped this trio in front of the magic mirror, the girls became more orderly, more responsible, more type A. My son, on the other hand, became clumsier, flakier, and more, well, Moose-like.



Taken together, my kids became the characters in DUCK DUCK MOOSE, a book about two ducks who have a hard time dealing with a moose who somehow seems to ruin everything. And yet, just like my children have done, the ducks and the moose form and untraditional yet unbreakable unit. (The magic mirror magnified those qualities as well – I’m not sure the real ducks are as forgiving as the fictional ducks, nor that the real moose is as innocent as the moose in the book!)

By the way, sometimes the person I place in front of the mirror is someone I don’t like. In one of those cases, the reflection is of that person – but she’s dumber, or weaker, or more disgusting. Because the mirror magnifies personal qualities in both directions.

More Magic

Remember how I said that what I loved about Snow White was the magic mirror that showed you as the person wanted to be? Your readers want that, too. Your readers want your book to be a magic mirror.

The best stories feature a main character who is a reflection of the reader. When the reader looks in the magic mirror that is the book, he sees himself.

That may sound like a contradiction – after all, how can your main character be you AND all of your readers? But I promise you it is not. Because when we construct our characters, even though they are reflections of real people, the magnification process gives them a universal quality.



Here’s what I mean by that. Not all of you have lain awake at night wanting a midnight snack while at the same time fearing that a Hampire might eat you. But we all know the feeling of being afraid of the unknown and making rash decisions before gathering all the facts. Not all of you are talking chickens in pajamas wanting to stay up past your bedtimes. But we all have wanted to break the rules at some point – and have felt true solidarity with anyone who would break the rules along with us. And not all of you have had to kiss a lot of rodents or pigs to get to what you truly wanted out of life. But…well, maybe that example can stand as is.

So when you are looking at your character in the magic mirror, make sure you look past the surface appearance and try to see who he or she is deep, down inside. Don’t focus on the little details and instead probe into his or her very soul. Turn the mirror into an X-ray machine, into an electron microscope. Look at the all the parts – and then look again at the whole picture.

Can you see your character now?

SAMSUNG CSCSudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the co-founder of Kidlit Summer School and an award-winning author whose books include DUCK DUCK MOOSE, TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS, ORANGUTANGLED, and over thirty more books. Her books have been named to the Junior Library Guild, the California Reader’s Collection, the Alabama Children’s Choice Book Award Program, the Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year lists and the Amelia Bloomer list. Find out more about her by visiting her WEBSITE or her blogs Nerdy Chicks Rule and Nerdy Chicks Write.  Visit her Author page on Facebook HERE. Remember to follow her on Twitter  @SudiptaBQ.

Sudipta is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.

And check out the Exercise Book for Sudipta’s tips on Gazing into your Own Character Magic Mirror!





Kathryn Erskine: Walking Around in Your Characters’ Shoes

Kathryn walks in a sheep field like her MC from The Badger Knight.

Kathryn walks in a sheep field like her MC from The Badger Knight.

To riff on a great line from a great book (To Kill a Mockingbird) you never really know a character until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.  Characters are really people, aren’t they?  So that’s exactly what we need to do — walk around in their shoes.  Really.  It’s fun!

Step 1:  What kind of shoes does your character wear?

Do you know?  What do you picture?  Flip flops?  Uggs?  Chucks?  Chucks personalized with paint or markers?  Shoes tell us something about the person wearing them — they could speak to comfort or style or status.  Think about your characters.  It’s not necessary to say what they’re wearing, just to have a feel for it yourself, although sometimes I’ve used the actual shoes to make a figurative point:

MikeIn the Absolute Value of Mike, Mike always wears the same style of brown lace-up Clarks his now deceased mom bought for him when he was little — an indication of his connection to her and his yearning for a family since he’s so disconnected from his dad.

Matt wears big black boots in Quaking to look tough and protect her from the world that, so far, has only hurt her.

Adrian’s boots are too small at the beginning of The Badger Knight and he is, for the first time, entrusted to buy his own new boots.  He chooses poorly — stylish, expensive, and too large — because he’s relying on trappings to make himself feel big and important.  As his hero’s journey continues, Adrian is increasingly grateful for the practical boots his father ended up trading for, realizing that true power and beauty come from within.

 Step 2:  Where is your character standing?

Look around.  How does the setting affect your character?  Is your character:

Quaking (See the boots?)

Quaking (See the boots?)




Fish out of water?

One of many, trying to break out?

What about the environment is pushing against your character and how does he or she push back?  Think of it this way:  if your character were in the Wild West, how would where your character stands differ from Downtown Abbey?  A modern urban environment?  A small boat at sea?  Narnia?  The setting your character comes up against is going to tell us a lot about who your character is.

 IMG_0212Step 3:  What does your character see as she’s standing in those shoes? 

And how, exactly, does your character see it?  Is there any vision issue?  What is your character’s physical perspective?  Is she tall, short, young, old?  If she sees a tree does she want to climb it?  If she sees a building does she want to spray paint it?  If she sees something that scares her does she run away or is she drawn to it?

 Step 4:  How does your character walk?

You can tell a lot about someone by the way they walk.  Is it a confident stride, a cocky strut, sexy sashay, slow saunter, shy shuffle?  Walk like your character.  I bet you can tell your spouse’s or kid’s or mom’s walk from far away.  It’s distinctive.  And it says something about them.  It’s partly body type and skeletal frame but it’s also personality and perhaps pain, either physical or emotional.  Walk up to a full-length mirror so you can see your character’s walk.

 Step 5:  How does your character talk?

Is there anything distinctive about her voice?  An accent?  A stutter?  Particularly nasal or a low, gravely voice?  An unusual word or phrase she uses a lot to describe something or express surprise?  There should be something that lets us “hear” her so that when she’s talking you don’t even need to write, “Sudipta said,” because we know it’s Sudipta.  That’s when you’ve created a distinct, unique voice for your character.  Also, when does your character talk?  Is this a shy or outspoken character?  Is her voice soft or loud?  Does she yell?  Ever?  If so, when?  All of these elements reflect her personality.  Talk or whisper or yell out loud so you can hear your character’s voice.

 Step 6:  How does your character feel and think?

Now that you’re getting the hang of their body, get in touch with their emotions and personalities.  You know what they see and where they are and how they see it.  How does that make them feel?  Do they sweat?  Startle?  Run and hide?  Push themselves forward no matter what the danger?  How do they react to being short or tall or poor or an outcast?  Are they defiant, depressed, determined?  And why?

Take a Myers Briggs test from your character’s perspective.  Figure out what “love language” they speak, i.e., what motivates them (from Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages):

Kathryn's latest novel: The Badger Knight

Kathryn’s latest novel: The Badger Knight


–quality time



–touch (e.g., hugs)

Also, do some research if you need to discover specific aspects of your character — how does divorce or a new baby affect a 5 year old, 8 year old, 13 year old?

Often, our past experience helps shape who we are, which leads us to the next step….

 Step 7:  Where has your character walked before?

If you know your character’s past and who they are, then you’ll have a good feel for how they’ll react to situations and what motivates them.  The classic example is Harry Potter. What kind of background must we know in order to buy the idea that an eleven year old boy would fight the supreme wizard who threatens the world?  We had to see the horrible Dursleys with whom Harry lived — in that spidery closet under the stairs — and know that his parents were killed by Voldemoort even as they gave their lives to save their son.  On top of that, the only family Harry has now, his friends at Hogwarts, are in imminent danger of being destroyed by the dark lord.  Add to that a suspected protective power hidden in that scar on his forehead and, OK, I’m sold.

 Step 8:  How does your character act?

See above.  Once you know steps 1 – 7, then you know how your character acts.  And if you ever start doubting or wondering, put those Keds , Crocs or whatever back on and get in touch with that character again.  Talk to him.  Ask her questions.  Hang out with them.  It’ll be like visiting an old friend, or frenemy, and after you’ve had a quick chance to catch up, you can step forward.

 Happy trails!

P.S.  You might want to make sure your character likes to eat and drink things that you enjoy, since that’s a part of becoming your character, too.  A favorite part of research!  And not just for me — notice how Kami Kinard has a cupcake theme in The Boy Problem.  I predict Hot Tamale candies in a future novel….


Kathryn Erskine is the author of five children’s novels including National Book Award winner, Mockingbird, the recent Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and her upcoming release, The Badger Knight.  She draws on her life stories and world events in her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books. You can find out more about her on her WEBSITE! 

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Kathy’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check the Facebook group or your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.