Creating believable characters from the ground up.
Cate Whittle is a local author with a big imagination and an innate ability for crafting fantastic characters and amazing adventures. Cate will be tutoring Characters that Count at the ACT Writers Centre on Saturday June 10th. We asked Cate five questions about writing and characters in the lead up to her workshop.
How did your journey as a writer first begin?
I’ve been writing stories (and letters and journals and essays) for as long as I can remember… but things got serious when I took some time off work to look after our 3rd child who came along as a wonderful surprise many years after #1 and #2 and turned out to be a very high needs baby. In the odd moments when he was actually asleep I could write, and soon I started entering competitions and did quite well with prizes and publication for a range of short stories, then moved into stories and articles for children’s magazines and just kept going.
Life being what it is, I ended up back in paid employment as a teacher and there was a bit of a hiatus, but I couldn’t stop myself and started writing again, reaching the highlight of my competition career when I was shortlisted in Terry Pratchett’s Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now First Novel Award in 2013, and I went over to London to meet my writing hero (and came away with the amazing conversation stopper at parties that Terry Pratchett had read my novel and loved it! I also found out how much he loved Australia and cats). I didn’t win, but that was immaterial. I spent a good half hour talking books, Australia, and cats with Terry Pratchett!
My next big highlight was the contract for my Trouble series with Omnibus Scholastic, which has a very soft spot in my heart. Trouble is written for young readers in the 7–10 age bracket, but there is a lot of appeal for slightly older readers, too, and he has some avid adult fans!
Is there a general rule for how many characters should be introduced and when?
The more characters you have the more complicated managing them gets—and believe me, they need managing. They can take over your life if you let them. In Trouble, the main character tells the story in her own voice, and people sort of arrive ad hoc as she remembers to introduce them.
In truth, though, anyone who has an important role should arrive fairly early on in the story, and you absolutely should not drag someone into the story at a late stage and surprise readers with them if they have a starring role in the resolution of the plot.
In the ‘Characters that Count’ workshop, one of the important take-aways is about how character arc runs parallel with the story arc. The two are intertwined, and reflect each other. You can have a cast of thousands for your minor characters, but they do need to add to the plot somehow.
In what ways are character growth and story arc linked?
Character growth is an integral part of plot development. Character is story and what your character does is how the plot unfolds. Your character is there to resolve the plot problem, overcome conflict and complications, and face fears. The resolution will rely on the character. The character drives action, and the action will change the character.
Can you tell us a little bit about a favourite character that you have created?
I’m always in love with the character that I’m writing at any given time. Georgia, the narrator from the Trouble series, is a feisty young girl with very strong opinions and is very certain of herself. She grew out of an amalgamation of some amazing young people I have had the privilege of teaching over the years—mostly sparky young girls with a talent for getting into a bit of mischief—and perhaps represents something that I would like to have seen in myself as I was growing up! Or maybe she is my alter ego!
In the story I submitted to the Terry Pratchett Prize my main character is very different. He is discontented with his life and a bit naïve, taking a long time to learn the lessons that are thrown up along his epic journey. Interestingly, one of his main supporting characters is a lot like Georgia, although more temperamental!
What can attendees expect from your upcoming workshop Characters that Count at the ACT Writers Centre?
Hopefully some fun! And to learn about creating strong characters.
We will start out by looking at character introductions and descriptions from some familiar books for children and young adults, and think about how this is done by successful authors and what we can learn from them.
We’ll work together to find out how we can bring our own characters to life, and how to introduce them to our readers without falling into the trap of delivering too much information.
Then we will consider how character growth complements story arc, and why change is important, and how to write those characters with just the right amount of description.
And there will be time for writing and sharing, and the opportunity to receive and give some critical feedback (but no pressure).
The workshop should be a bit of fun and, while I focus on children’s books based around the genre of fantasy and adventure, character development has the same basic tenets across all fiction, making it relevant regardless of writing background or style.
A bonus of attending any workshop is the connections you make with other writers, and the incidental information and learning that you can pick up from one another.
Local author Cate Whittle sometimes steps out of her imagination, where amazing characters take her on fantastic adventures, long enough to write their stories down. Also a mum and a teacher, the stories are most often for children and young adults, and frequently feature a dragon in one form or another. Cate’s characters have come to life in stories that have won prizes and been shortlisted in competitions, including the (international) Terry Pratchett Prize in 2013, and have been published in magazines and anthologies since 2002. Cate’s Trouble series for young readers, all about Georgia and her troublesome dragon, is published by Scholastic Australia (Omnibus Books). Visit Cate’s website at http://www.catewhittlewrites.com/.