Kathryn Erskine is the bestselling author of Mockingbird, a National Book Award winner about a fifth grade girl who learns to cope with tragedy. Figment is honored to have Kathy join us here on our blog. We believe that one of the many reasons Mockingbird is an amazing book is that the main character, Caitlin, has such an authentic and unique voice. Figment asked Kathy to tell us how she develops characters and brings them to life.
by Kathryn Erskine
When actors take on a role, they spend a lot of time and effort researching their character. If they’re depicting a real character who’s still alive and are lucky enough to spend time with that person, they’ll shadow them, observing and imitating. Sandra Bullock did that with Leigh Anne Touhy in The Blind Side. And she said she wouldn’t have appreciated what a force of nature Touhy was if she hadn’t truly observed and understood her. Obviously, it worked. Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Crafting characters for fiction requires the same kind of effort. To make a character feel truly authentic, we writers need to create our own forces of nature, characters who come to life from the static page and live in people’s minds long after the story is over. How do we do that? By becoming our characters, at least temporarily, while we’re writing that story. Here are some ways to get into character:
Know and understand your character. If your character is from another country, learn about that country and its people. Get to know some people from that country. Interview them. Learn their culture. Go there. Read their stories, listen to their music, watch their movies. The same goes for a religion or a political persuasion or any area with which you’re not already entirely familiar. I did a lot of research about Asperger’s for Mockingbird–reading, attending workshops and lectures, interviewing people–in addition to having a family member on the autism spectrum. I also researched grief and dealing with the death of a child or sibling since that’s also an issue in the book. All of the information helps you to write a more authentic and compelling story.
I might not go into great detail about the background of my character but I know it very well, well enough to understand her fear of rejection (shuttled from relative to relative as her presence became inconvenient) or his determination that a little boy be adopted (someone should have a real family even if he himself doesn’t). It’s not just convenient for the story; it has grounding and is part of the reason for the story. But the reader has to really feel it to believe it. So we need to see how she deals with rejection, hiding behind that wall, and cheer as we see it start chipping away from the outside and the inside. We need to see that even though he’s a likable, clever, resourceful kid, he feels dumb because his father only focuses on his learning disability.
We need to see your character — not just height, weight, and hair color, but the way he cringes when he’s yelled at or the way she can’t look someone in the eye, the way he cracks his knuckles when he’s nervous, or she can’t help smiling when her brother gets in trouble, the way Dad always starts dinner conversations with, “So what did you learn at school today?” or Mom insists that the kids wear jackets just because she’s cold. Also, it’s what your character wears. Does she dress in black? Does he wear the same kind of shoes all the time? Does she carry a favorite blanket around? And why? The explanation doesn’t have to be extensive. It might only be a sentence. But it makes us think, Aha, I know where she’s coming from.
4. Habits, Likes & Dislikes
Here’s another element that makes our characters human: giving them human attributes we can relate to. Maybe he always oversleeps. Maybe she tries hard to make friends but always says the wrong thing because she can’t help being literal. Maybe his character flaw is always caving to peer pressure or not being able to bypass a dare (think Marty McFly in Back to the Future). Maybe she feels for people who can’t stand up for themselves and that’s what drives her to action. And certainly we can understand likes and dislikes, whether it’s particular foods or chores or personalities. We all have them. Give them to your characters, too. And make them believable. For example, she doesn’t like people who yell because it reminds her of her abusive father. Makes sense.
5. Being your Character
This is the fun part! You get to say and do exactly what your character would (as long as it’s legal, of course). Dress up. Walk like your character, talk like your character. Remember the mannerisms. Maybe they don’t quite work? Maybe you’ll come up with new ones naturally because now you’re in costume and in character. Listen to their music and watch their movies. Eat their food. Look at life from your character’s point of view. What makes your character laugh and cry? What is your character worried about? What are your character’s hopes and dreams? This leads us to the crux of the story . . .
6. What does your character want?
When you can answer this question, you have your story. If you haven’t figured out exactly who your character is, you need only ask him or her, Why? And I seriously do mean to ask your character. In fact, sit down and have a chat. Invite your character into the living room, offer the comfy chair, and ask those questions. By interviewing your character and finding out what, exactly, he or she wants, and why, you will discover what’s at the heart of your story. And your heart, because interviewing your character is really a way of unlocking your subconscious mind. By getting at what you / your character really wants to say, you will successfully get into character and be able to get that character across to the rest of us.
Finally, returning to step one (research), reread the stories with your favorite characters and read recent books with memorable characters. Analyze what makes them so believable. Like a good actor researching a role, observe what the author has done. Then go on to step two (background) and start building your own forces of nature.