Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Brief Guide to Population Control by Steve Watkins

Steve Watkins is a professor of English at the University of Mary Washington. His novel Down Sand Mountain was awarded the 2008 Golden Kite Award for Young Adult Fiction by The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Recently, Steve presented writing tips to a captive audience at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Fall Conference.

A Brief Guide to Population Control:
1. Give your characters resonant names. In Down Sand Mountain I have a naïve, twelve-year-old protagonist named Dewey, a little sister named Tink, a drunk doctor named Rexroat, a clueless police officer named O.O. Odom, a best friend named Boopie, a Vietnam vet named Wratchford. All names have resonance, of course, but some have greater resonant than others.

2. And sometimes you just want a good old-fashioned Everyman or Everywoman character. His name is Charlie. Her name is Annie.

3. Don’t isolate your protagonist. We need to see them engaged with other characters. That’s principally how you’ll move your plot forward, develop your central characters, and explore your themes. If you find your protagonist all alone, sitting and thinking, ruminating, remembering, then you’ve probably found a scene you should rewrite. With other characters in it, too.

4. Don’t introduce too many characters at once. You’re probably already lost trying to remember all the characters I just introduced in that name explosion above in #1. Remember the Rule of Three: That’s the number for the most individual characters you generally want to introduce in any given scene.

5. Don’t give your characters names that are too similar. Cathy and Angie and Allie are all the same girl. Billy and John and Dan are the same boy.

6. Describe your crowds first—think about that establishing shot in films—THEN zoom in on someone in the crowd. Let us get to know that character before you introduce any others. Remember the Rule of Three (see #4 above).

7. The idea of characters being either Flat or Round can be helpful. Some are barely present; others are central to your story. But ALL your characters should matter. When your Flat characters are real—even those making the tiniest cameos—they help breathe life into your Round characters, and add greater spice to your story. To put it another way, if your protagonist interacts with undeveloped characters or stereotypes, you lose tension and authenticity because we already know what our reaction to those characters should be (boos and hisses for the bad guys, tears for the innocent), and we likely know the outcome of the interaction before we even read it.

8. Love your villains. Create characters that your readers want to spend time with—even if it’s to hate them, despise them, condemn them, and see them get their just desserts. The Joker is much more interesting than Batman in “The Dark Knight.” Satan gets all the best lines in “Paradise Lost.”

9. In part this is also because heroes are boring if they’re too good. Reluctant heroes, with flaws, foibles, feet of clay—that’s who we want to spend our time with. Think Jo in “Little Women.” Angelic Beth: not so much.

10. On a related note: consistency is definitely important to your characters, and in your narrator and his or her voice. But too much consistency kills tension and leads to boredom and is bad for sales. What you want is complexity. Remember the bouncer in the club scene in the Judd Apatow film “Knocked Up”? Let your characters surprise you sometimes. Let them surprise other characters. Let them surprise your readers.

11. You have an enormous arsenal of weapons at your disposal—I suppose we should go with the gentler term, narrative techniques—for developing your characters. Here they are, though obviously some only apply to your protagonist, as we don’t generally have access to the thoughts, memories, etc. of most of your other characters:

a. What the character looks like.
b. What the character says.
c. What the character does.
d. What the character thinks and feels.
e. What the character remembers.
f. What the character has done in the past.
g. What the character imagines, wants, needs.
h. What the character acts in relationships with others.
i. What the character DOESN’T say or do or think.
j. What others think or say about another character.

12. But keep in mind that ALL of this is or should be filtered through the observing consciousness—that is, the observations, thoughts, memories, experiences of your protagonist—so frequently can end up telling us as much about the protagonist as it does about the other characters being described. And, fortunately, sometimes your protagonist gets to be wrong.

To learn more about Steve please visit, and look for his new book from Candlewick Press out this spring, Goat Girl.

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