Getting to Know You

More new stuff on the website: All my book tour appearances are now posted. Just click on News and then on Appearances and you’re there. But to give you an idea, the cities I’ll be in or near are Chicago, Salt Lake City, L.A., Houston, and Boston. I’ll be in Orlando and Milwaukee too, but no signings. This came up the last time I toured, so I’ll repeat that I don’t simply sign at a signing. I read from the new book, talk about it, and take questions before I start signing, and generally there’s time to get a little acquainted. Hope to see some of you!

Also new on the website: The first chapters of all my books have now been posted, so you can take a look. Let me particularly direct you to my least known novel, Dave at Night, which may be my favorite.

Since I’ll be touring for the next two weeks the appearance of the blog is iffy, but I’m going to try to keep it up.

On March 3, 2011, maricafajaffa wrote, …I have this habit of jumping right into the plot. In the story I have been writing, the characters are introduced with a small amount of background and then suddenly the main plot line is introduced. I have tried to stretch it out but I haven’t been able to work it out properly. Please help me. You can read my story on one of my blogs:

and maricafajaffa later added:

    I’m not sure if it is bad, but I just get the feeling that I’m getting into the story too quickly and there isn’t much for readers to really get acquainted with the characters.
Then Charlotte commented, @maricafajaffa– sometimes I find you need to write a bunch before even you can get acquainted with the characters. I know I’ve found that it really doesn’t matter how much I figure out about my characters before I start writing (I’m a total fan of the age/gender/height/weight/likes/dislikes/etc forms), because once I’m in the story, they often end up going off and doing their own thing anyway. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s always time to add more about who your characters are in the beginning AFTER you’ve written enough to know that yourself. There’s a huge difference between the first draft and the final product. You don’t have to get it perfect on the first try. Heaven knows I never have. 🙂
    Hope this has been helpful…

Thanks, Charlotte. Very helpful, I believe.

maricafajaffa, if you’re worried about us readers, we aren’t likely to care about the characters until they’re in at least a tiny bit of trouble or somehow at risk, no matter what their backgrounds are. Let’s imagine Irena, an abused teenager, for example, in a foster home, living with Mr. and Mrs. Nembler. Irena has her own bedroom and she’s on the phone with her cousin Jeb from her old life. She tells Jeb how much better her situation is now, and the conversation reveals a lot about her. We hear her voice. She says “You’ll never believe” frequently. She tells Jeb about the shopping spree her foster mom took her on. From the elaborate description we get Irena’s fashion sense. From her enthusiasm we realize that her fashion sense has rarely been indulged. We sympathize with her. If she asks Jeb what’s going on with him we see she cares about other people and we may begin to like her. But the stakes are low.

Suppose she ends the phone call and lights a cigarette. Uh oh. A seed of worry has been planted. Is she allowed to smoke in her room? Do her foster parents know she smokes? Is she sabotaging her wonderful new place? We may wonder where she got the money for cigarettes. When the cigarette dwindles to a nubbin she puts it out between her thumb and forefinger. Youch! How self-destructive is this girl? The conversation with Jeb has put us on Irena’s side, and now we’re worried. Now we care.

A million other things can pull us in. The Nemblers’ youngest son, theirs by birth, can announce he doesn’t want Irena living there. Mr. Nembler can enter Irena’s room and close the door behind him, enough to tinkle our alarm bells. Another foster child can warn Irena about Mrs. Nembler’s temper.

I’m naming mundane but potentially important problems; however, you don’t have to go that way. Irena can go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. She glimpses Mr. Nembler in the living room watching TV. She knows it’s him because he’s wearing the same University of Kentucky sweatshirt, only his human head has been replaced by the head of a horse.

I agree with Charlotte. We need to put our characters into a situation and imagine what they might do. Sometimes they’ll take matters into their own hands and act independently seemingly without our intervention. But more often, especially at the beginning of a story, we have to consider the options for them and pick. If we have a sense of the story we’re telling, we think of possibilities that will take our character where we want her to go. Best not to force her. We don’t want to make her do something strange just because our plot needs her to.

If we ourselves don’t have a clue about Irena, we may have her do something generic when the action begins or behave as we would, and the results may not be as interesting as we’d wish. If I were Irena I’d sneak out the back door and go to the police. But first, being a cautious soul, I’d peek in the police station window to make sure the cops don’t have horse’s heads too. That’s me and one version of Irena. One of my friends adores horses. She’d probably imitate a whinny and march right in and strike up a conversation. Another friend would be likely to question her own sanity. Sometimes it helps to think of actual people you know to develop options. What would your best friend do? How about your daredevil cousin? Your older brother? Your mother? When you finish running through actual people, imagine other options. Might Irena wonder if Mrs. Nembler has a horse’s head too? Might she go back to her room and push the bureau against the door? And so on.

Whatever Irena does in this situation, or in any of the other scenarios, begins to establish her character for both the reader and the writer more vividly than any amount of background can. Once you have a start on her – once she begins to act – then future options are narrowed. The girl who marches into the kitchen to speak to the horse is unlikely to run away when Mrs. Nembler comes out of the bathroom with the head of a sheep in place of her human head. Irena may bolt, but if she does, you have to explain.

The events that follow also depend on what Mr. Nembler says or does, how his personality shapes up and the personalities of the other people in the family, possibly the town.

I’ve written this before, that sometimes I start with a character’s back story because I need to know his history before jumping into the present problem, but the back story gums up my beginning and the book doesn’t get off to a clean start and I wind up amputating the back story. So I think it’s generally fine to get into the action quickly. And, yes, I agree with Charlotte that in revision you’ll be better able to see what you need in order to introduce your characters. When the whole sweep of your story is behind you, your perspective clarifies.

You’ve probably guessed the prompt. Write about Irena in any one or more of the difficulties I suggested. She’s self-destructive; a member of the family doesn’t want her; Mrs. Nembler has a terrible temper; Mr. Nembler, and possibly others, is transformed at night. He doesn’t necessarily have to get a horse’s head, either. The animal could be far less benign. Also, you can give Irena problems I haven’t even dreamed of.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. My favorite quote in this post is this: "Whatever {the character such as} Irena does in this situation, or in any of the other scenarios, begins to establish her character for both the reader and the writer more vividly than any amount of background can."

    This quote highlighted an important message that I, initially, didn't know, which is that a character's personality is defined best by the actions they take in the course of the story. I always thought I had to have a character fleshed out before I began the story. But now I know…I can flesh them out as the story continues and then go back and edit when I'm done. This has been a great post. Thank you.

  2. First off- I wanted to say, I read the 1st chapter of "Dave at Night" and enjoyed it greatly, I really liked your voice for this one. I think I'll haveta pick up the rest of the book at the library :).

    I really like this post. I've been having a bit of trouble getting to know the main character of my newest project, it seems I know everyone else but her, so this will help. It also will help with everyone else's backstory that I tend to want to dump on the reader all at once.

    I also wanted to say (in case you didn't see the comment I made on the last post), thanks bluekiwii, and Ms. Levine for the advice. I'll try out what you both suggested and see if it works, and let you know if it did. 🙂

    As for the book tour, pretty awesome stuff. Unfortunately all your signings are too far away for me to come, Ms. Levine. But, if you ever come anywhere in Missouri, I'll be there. I hope your tour is going well 🙂

  3. I love the exploration of when we learn about our characters–before we start writing, or as the events unfold… I've sometimes realized important things about my characters after I've finished a novel–which may sound strange! But it was that the pieces were there all along, and I just didn't put them together to realize something.

    Example: I had a heroine who is very strong-willed and tends to take charge in any situation. Also, her mother died when she was very young, and she's been helping her father run their family inn for years. When I put it together like that, it seems obvious that it all relates. But I had the entire novel written before it dawned on me that, subtextually at least, her mother dying and her subsequent need to take on responsibility is what made her become so strong-willed.

    I did have a point here…oh, I suppose that there's no predicting when characters are going to reveal something to you, so I'm definitely a fan of plunging in and seeing who your characters turn out to be as you send them through their adventure!

  4. I first read Dave at Night years ago. 🙂 In fact, I've read all of your released books so far except Betsy Red Hoodie, Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand, and Fairies and the Quest for Never Land (because they're not available here). I hope to get my hands on a copy of each sometime though! I love all of your books. Really looking forward to when A Tale of Two Castles shows up in my mailbox!

  5. I wish I could come to an appearence but I can't-too far away! I hope you come to Kansas (or Missouri) some time!
    Thank you for this post- it was helpful! I've been working on my story and I sometimes get stumped on writing like the character- and not like me and this helped! Thank you! {I so agree with bluekiwii}
    I haven't read Dave At Night, but I've read all of your other books and LOVE them! I was wondering if you know this, Ms. Levine- do you know when the copies of Two Castles will be shipped out? I remember there being a discussion on this some time back… I'm guessing it has to do with the distributer but I thought I'd ask! 🙂

  6. Oh sorry Ive been commenting so much!
    I just have a question… How do you go about writing short stories or children's books (children as in ages 7-9)? I like writing loooong stories and novellas because I can take a while to develop (and 'solve' it)the plot and add more details. I feel like short stories can't have a complicated plot because it would take longer to write them. Does anyone have advice on writing short stories and kid's books?

  7. Great Post, Mrs. Levine! Thanks for the help!

    My problem is a bit of the opposite, though. I spend pages introducing characters, and am trying to figure around it. And I have a few events take place before some of my characters are introduced, and so it seems to come out of no where. Would you have any advice?

  8. welliewalks–These are big topics. Many books have been written about each, which you can probably find in your public library. However, I'll weigh in with a few thoughts in a post.

    Monica Mari–I'm not sure I understand. Can you amplify your question? What seems to come out of nowhere?

  9. I don't think I've ever been so glad to be agreed with so many times! Thanks and great post!
    I read Dave at Night ages ago and forgot about it, but seeing the first chapter again reminded me how good it was! I totally just requested it from the library again… 🙂

  10. Oh my gosh, I was at a booksale yesterday and one of the first books I saw was Dave at Night! I picked it up right away, and I can't wait to read it.

    In the story I'm working on, the first draft started out super slow. I needed that beginning at the time to introduce myself to characters/setting, but in my second draft it opens with action. I'm trying to slow down the action with character descriptions and thoughts, so it's not too overpowering. There's a lot of backstory in there too that I think helps.

    Speaking of backstory, I was wondering – the story I'm working on is part of a series. I thought it might be nice to add a prologue to it, to kind of give a sense of setting and background. It would also slow down the beginning because the reader would know what was going on. But I'm not sure if I want te other books in the series to have prologues. Is it okay tochange that format from one book o the other, or should it stay the same?

    I'd love to come to one of your signings, but they are all too far away. Do you ever come anywhere near Philadelphia?

  11. Sorry for the confusion. I end up introducing semi-main characters halfway through my stories, and they end up playing large roles later on, but for things to go as planned, they must be introduced after events that occur beforehand. Friends and Family have told me that they are a bit confused with the suddenly introduced characters, as they appear at of nowhere as they were not introduced beforehand, and then they became important to large points in the plot.

  12. Jenna Royal–You can change format from book to book. You can change point of view – anything, as long as it works.

    I'll be signing in New York City at the end of the month, soon to be posted on the website. That's as close as I'm coming for now, but I have signed in Philadelphia in the past.

    Monica Mari–I'm adding your question to my list.

  13. It's actually pretty good. I love the pendant idea and I would like to know more about the teacher who gave them their powers. I would work on their powers being less cheesy, some parts of it have been done a million times. They could use some description. But I do like the telepathy.

  14. Any chance you may come all the way to Michigan –beautiful Northern Michigan, Traverse City in particular? There are some big fans around here –we'd love to help get you here!

    We have an amazing writers series, I could get you in touch –I think it is time they featured an author for our Children and YA crowd!

    The Mom @

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