In The List, Siobhan Vivian imagines a high school tradition in which a yearly list is posted of the prettiest and ugliest girl of each grade. No one knows who posts the list, but each year it makes eight girls famous. The List follows all eight of the chosen girls–hottest and ugliest–through their experiences after their names appear on the feared and revered list.
So, the pretty girls get happy and the ugly girls get sad, right? You may think you have each girl figured out before you begin reading, but Siobhan weaves an emotionally-rich tale for each of the eight girls. How does she do it? Below, Siobhan gives some pointers on how to create unique protagonists in your own writing.
When I first pitched the idea for The List to my editor, I had imagined the story would be about one girl, a girl who had been named the ugliest girl in her class for four years in a row. That girl is still in the book—Jennifer Briggis.
My editor nodded enthusiastically as I talked about Jennifer, about her school and the annual tradition of the list, in which someone names the prettiest and the ugliest girl in each grade. When I finished talking, he smiled and said, “I love Jennifer and her story, but what about the rest of people on the list? The seven other girls? I think you should write about all of them!”
I nearly choked on my Diet Coke.
Eight main characters?
Are you serious?
He was totally serious. And I was petrified . . . for about five minutes.
That’s about how long it took for other characters to pop into my head. First came Sarah, then Abby, then Candace. It was as if they’d been hiding in my brain, waiting for a chance to step out of the shadows and say hello.
Just like that, my fear turned into excitement. Having eight main characters would make this book different from my previous novels (which is always my goal when I start something new). I also felt that the topics of beauty and identity would give me endless ideas for plot points. Lastly, there was the straight-up challenge of trying to pull off a story this big. I wanted to give it a shot.
Of course, this was all much easier in the abstract. When it came down to actually writing eight girls, I panicked. One main character is hard enough to get right, but EIGHT?!
One decision I made right off the bat was to write the book in third person. While I love books that alternate first-person chapters among a few different main characters, to do that with eight girls seemed like a bad idea. First off, I’d need to make each of my girls sound markedly different from the others. Even if I managed to accomplish that, I feared the book would read like eight people screaming for attention. If, instead, I had an omniscient narrator leading readers through my story, there’d be some uniformity to the voice. Also, I knew that appearing on the list—on either the pretty or ugly side—would provoke a lot of emotion, and I thought my narrator should be slightly detached, emotionally, from that experience, so there could be some perspective on the events.
The next thing I did was make notecards. I wrote each character’s name on a card, along with her central conflict, and stuck them on the wall. Then I tried to find places where my characters’ lives could overlap. I asked myself questions like, “Which of these girls know each other?” and “Who has a sibling in another grade?” “Would this character love / hate / understand that character?” This kind of thought process helped me a lot, because I stopped thinking of each character as an isolated story. If this book was going to work, the characters lives and experiences would need to intersect with each other in as many places as possible. I didn’t want the book to read like eight short stories. I wanted there to be some unity, some cohesion.
To that end, I read and reread one of my favorite classic young adult novels—The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. In some ways, he did the same thing as I was trying to do, with one overarching experience (the selling of chocolate bars) touching each of his characters’ lives.
Lastly, I pushed myself to inject some emotional truth into each girl’s story. Again, if this book were going to work, I’d need to make each girl feel totally real. So I thought a lot about different experiences I’ve had in my life—times where I felt pretty and times where I felt ugly—and tried to honestly portray what those experiences were like. Each of the eight girls in my book carries a bit of me inside them.
All this said, writing The List was definitely the most challenging experience I’ve ever had as a writer. And there were many, many, maaaaany points where I wanted to give up. I can’t tell you how many times I’d call up my other writer friends and cry because I didn’t think I could make the story work. Some of them gently suggested that I maybe let one or two or three characters go. But when faced with that decision, I couldn’t imagine letting any of my characters disappear. I loved them all, and all their stories felt like ones I needed to tell. I had to keep pushing forward.
If you are thinking about writing a story with several main characters, I’d suggest you keep the following two things in mind:
VOICE—make sure each character has a very specific point of view, something in her personality that makes her different from all the other people populating your story.
JOURNEY—each character should also experience something different from the others. This will give you something exciting to write about, a plot that feels entirely unique to that character.
If you can do this, your characters will definitely earn their place in your story!