Kami Kinard: Hug the Mean and Nasty. Finding the Humanity in Villains.

Head Shots from Carpe Diem 005

You know those kinds of people who are so mean and nasty they make everyone else’s lives miserable? I’m talking about the back-stabbers, gossip mongers, cat kickers, boyfriend-stealers, and world-domination plotters. Those types? What do you DO with people like that?

You, the authors, should embrace them – bear hug style! They may make undesirable companions in reality, but these characters can be an author’s very best friends.

Why? The reason is simple. They add CONFLICT and create TENSION. And tension drives your story. It keeps your readers turning the pages. It forces them to root for the main character. You want this!

But creating believable villains is tricky. See, even the most rotten of villains shouldn’t be all bad. Your readers don’t need to like these characters, but they need to be able to relate to or understand them on some level.

 Villains need to have something about them that reveals their humanity, no matter how despicable they are.

Here are five ways to achieve humanity in your villains.

  1. Make us feel sorry for them. You can evoke sympathy for your villain in all kinds of ways. Give them a back story. Did they have miserable childhoods? Have they been heartbroken? Do people make fun of them for the way they look?
  2. Bestow endearing qualities upon them. Do they take care of an elderly aunt? Secretly donate to charity? Are they kind to caterpillars?
  3. Help us understand what motivates them. Are they trying to overcome unhappiness? Do they have something to prove? Do they want to impress someone?
  4. Give them admirable qualities. Are they attractive? Smart? Musically gifted?
  5. Show their humanity through the eyes of other characters, or even a pet. In Cassandra Clare’s popular City of Bones, the nemesis, Valentine Morgenstern has a group of followers called the Circle. Disney frequently employs the technique of giving pets to villains. For example, The Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid has pet eels, and Jafar from Aladdin has Iago the parrot. If this formula didn’t work, Disney wouldn’t use it.

Let’s take a look at a great villain from Harry Potter that you’re all familiar with. Lord Voldemort’s humanity is revealed in several of these ways.

 

  • harry potter 2He was an orphan, which evokes sympathy.
  • He is motivated by hatred toward the muggle father who abandoned him. He is also motivated by the desire to improve his skill until he is the most powerful wizard ever.
  • He was a very handsome young wizard who was particularly smart and skillful. These qualities evoke admiration.
  • Other characters hold him in high regard. These include his followers, the Death Eaters, his former professors, and his pet snake Nagini.

 

Notice that Rowling uses four of the five techniques listed above to show Voldermort’s humanity. But does she give him any endearing qualities? I haven’t been able to find any! Which brings me to this point: You don’t have to incorporate ALL of these traits into your villainous characters! Consider your genre. If there is a villain in your picture book, you may only have room to give us a peek into his humanity. Or you may use the Grinch method of creating a character that seems villainous on the outside, but has humanity waiting to burst forth from within.

 

the boy problemBoth of my books, The Boy Problem and The Boy Project, are humorous middle grade novels so I did not delve deep into the psyche of the antagonist, Maybelline, in them. I gave her a pack of admiring friends, so we could see her value through their eyes. Kara CoverShe is also considered cute and stylish, characteristics admired by many of her classmates. Yet she is vulnerable. We are able to feel sorry for her when she is dumped by her boyfriend in The Boy Project, and we see her insecurity in The Boy Problem. Whether or not you spell out all of these character traits for your readers, you should develop a good understanding of your villains. I know that Maybelline is as insecure as the next girl, and that her actions are motivated by a desire to stay at the top of the tenuous middle school social pyramid.

 

Maybelline purposefully ruins one of Tabbi's fundraising cupcakes in THE BOY PROBLEM.

Maybelline purposefully ruins one of Tabbi’s fundraising cupcakes in THE BOY PROBLEM.

She is one of my favorite characters, not because she is nice, but because she isn’t! Maybelline continuously creates conflict for my main characters Tabbi and Kara. Their learning to navigate around her is part of what makes them grow.  She is essential to their stories.

 

Where would the Harry Potter books be without Voldemort? Where would Peter Pan be without Captain Hook? What struggles would Katniss face without President Snow? And how many cases would Encyclopedia Brown really be able to crack if Bugs Meany moved away? We need the antagonists, the villains, the nemeses! So embrace them. Appreciate their plotting, scheming, mean and nasty ways. Thank them for making your story a story.

Kami Kinard is the author of The Boy Problem (Scholastic, 2014) and The Boy Project (Scholastic, 2012). Her poetry, stories, articles, and essays have appeared in some of the world’s best periodicals for children and adults. Kami also works as a teaching artist, and teaches continuing education writing courses for adults. She lives at the edge of the universe (or at least the United States) with her family and the world’s smartest dog. Visit her at www.kamikinard.com or at www.NerdyChicksRule.com where she blogs with Sudipta. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking HERE.

Kami Kinard is giving away a 20 page manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #Kidlit Summer School.

 

Webinar tonight 9:00 EST. Details HERE!

 

Aimee Friedman: Do Looks Matter? Painting a Vivid Physical Portrait of Your Character

Aimee Friedman

Aimee Friedman

I’m an editor and an author, so I live on both sides of the desk. (And, on both sides, I’ve grown very familiar with the joy and struggle, the road-blocks and the breakthroughs, that go into telling a story). But most of all, on a fundamental level, I am a reader. Being a reader is what led me to these professions, and it is what sustains me — as a writer, as an editor, and well, as a person.

As a reader, I come to a story craving a sensory experience; I believe most readers do. I want to hear the crunch of leaves, smell the pine, taste the burnt marshmallow, feel the bark of a tree. That is the work of the writer, after all: to build a world up, piece by piece, so that the reader is fully immersed. And, in this world, I especially want to see everything. The surroundings — the campfire, the mountains — but, crucially, the characters.

Who is sitting around this campfire? Just as I need the characters’ voices and actions and desires to come alive for me, I need to have a strong visual sense of the characters, so that they exist vividly in my mind’s eye.

Aimee had to think of unique physical characteristics for her MC in Sea Change.

Aimee had to think of unique physical characteristics for her MC in Sea Change.

When asking an author of mine for a revision, one of my first requests will often be for a physical description of the protagonist. Ideally, I’d like such a description for every character, but the more minor players can be sketched with a less precise pencil. However, the main character — our inroad into the story, our compass — is most vibrant and fully realized for me if I can picture them clearly, and early on.

Is your protagonist blond? If so, what kind of blond? Pale as milk, or the color of sand? If she’s dark-haired, how might you describe the shade of brown? Is she tall, slim, full-figured? Is her nose snub? Does she wear glasses? What color are her eyes?

Needless to say, there are endless physical descriptors that can go into the introduction of a main character. The key is to not go overboard — you don’t want to lose the reader with a dense paragraph that details everything from the shape of the character’s face to her toe ring. A couple of evocative details go a long way. Also, these descriptions can be broken up and dispersed. An opening paragraph can show us the length of her hair; later in the chapter, we can learn her skin is freckled.

There are a variety of ways to introduce this physical description, rather than a plain “Mary was willowy and dark-skinned” or “I have curly red hair.” (though these work fine as well!). There is the comparison technique: showing one character in contrast to another. “Unlike her best friend, Jane, who was pale and petite, Mary was willowy and dark-skinned.” Right away, we have a visual: not just of Mary, but of Jane. The world is that much closer to being fully built. One can also drop a physical description in casually, almost sneakily. “The boys all called me ‘Carrots,’ so I came to hate my curly red hair.”

A writing teacher once advised me to never show a character looking in a mirror as a pathway to describing him or her. “Sue went into the bathroom and gazed at her hazel eyes.” But I think there are worse narrative sins — I think leaving out a visual of your character entirely leeches more life from a story than using this mirror technique.

Of course, there are arguments to be made against giving physical descriptions. We are taught, after all, that looks don’t matter: it’s what’s inside that counts. But the best physical descriptions illuminate something deeper about the character. For instance, perhaps a pudgy-cheeked character is resentful because he doesn’t bear any resemblance to his tall, chiseled other brother. Does your character wear contact lenses because she felt self-conscious about the glasses, and wanted to be perceived in a different way?

There is also the compelling argument that giving a visual description of a character can have a distancing effect on the reader — that he or she won’t be able to see themselves as easily in the story. That their imaginations can’t roam as

The Year My Sister Got Lucky

How do sisters look alike? Different?

freely. But let’s give readers more credit than that: their minds will always work to fill in the blanks, even if there is a physical description on the page. Before the movies came out and Daniel Radcliffe took up residence in our heads, I’m positive that my visual of Harry Potter was very different from that of my friend’s visual, even though we both knew he had black hair, round glasses, and a scar on his forehead. That’s the magic of reading. We enter the world conjured by the author, but no two people will picture it quite the same.

Can a story be enjoyed and reread and cherished if there aren’t physical descriptions of the characters? Certainly. In The Great Gatsby, we’re never really told what Daisy looks like — we only know she is beautiful and wealthy, and that is somehow enough. Like all “rules” about writing, this one isn’t hard-and-fast (I like to ignore my writing teacher’s advice about mirrors, after all). It’s ultimately about what works best for your specific story, for your process, for your characters. Sometimes the power lies in not knowing precisely how a character looks (take the wonderful Wonder, for instance, which is all about the character’s appearance, and yet not at all). Other times, you’ll want to spell it all out (take the enticing first paragraph of Gone with the Wind). Each writing experience will be different — as different and quirky and unique as the characters that populate your stories. And I look forward to reading about them.

Aimee Friedman is an executive editor at Scholastic, where she is fortunate enough to edit such titles as the New York Times bestselling series Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski, and, of course, the acclaimed The Boy Project and The Boy Problem by Kami Kinard. Aimee is also a New York Times bestselling author of YA novels, including Sea Change. She writes for middle-grade readers under the pen name Ruth Ames. Aimee lives, writes, works, and searches for the perfect iced latte in New York City. Check out her website HERE and you can follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/aimeefriedman.

 

GIVEAWAY: Aimee is giving away a signed copy of her book Sea Change! At the end of #KidlitSummerSchool one name will be drawn from all who comment on this post. 

 

And don’t forget the Webinar tomorrow night at 9:00 pm EST. You can find details HERE

 

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?)

Poor?

Outcast?

Foreign?

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

–gifts

–quality time

–praise

–service

–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….

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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.