It’s not going to be a long blog post this month, because I have precisely five days before I need to be in a car with my husband and all my worldly possessions and heading cross-country to Yellowstone. But being in the thick of several manuscripts at all different stages—one in plotting, one in drafting, and one in editing—I wanted to share some great tips I’ve gathered over the years on jump-starting protagonists. Think of them as icebreakers for authors, only less horrible than real social icebreakers because your characters can't judge you.
So many of my protagonists start out as little more than a suggestion—a role to fill (Mae), a foil to another character (Rou), a catalyst (Celeno). Often, it’s not until I reach the end of the first draft that I understand exactly who that character is and how to achieve their full potential. Sometimes that makes drafting hard, especially when I need a character to make a big decision—by the time I was writing Creatures of Light, I knew, for example, how Mona would react in any given situation. But as I was drafting book 1 of The Outlaw Road, with new characters, I had to do a lot more puzzling. What choices would this character make? How do they handle their problems? How do they react when they fail?
There are lots of great character-building exercises and activities available online and in writers' workshops to help you get to know your protagonist, but I have a few go-to aids that I use when I realize I need to know more about them. Check them out below the jump!
I’ve been thinking a lot about heroines this month.
It started with Inktober, the month-long challenge where artists post a pen and ink drawing every day. Back at the end of September, when the news cycle was especially ugly, I wasn’t sure I was going to have the emotional stamina to see Inktober through this year. I’ve come to love it—it’s made ink one of my favorite mediums besides digital art. But 31 days of illustrations seemed like such a tall order in a world where political and climate disasters are so big and my voice and efforts seem so small. Normally I like to plot out my posts ahead of time, but as September wound down with little to no inspiration for the official prompts, it seemed more and more pointless.
Two things saved me. One was my current re-read of the Queen’s Thief series in preparation for the release of Return of the Thief early next year (this marks the 897th time Megan Whalen Turner’s work has rescued me emotionally). The other was the official prompt for Inktober day 1: “poisonous.” Being deep into the Queen’s Thief automatically made me think of the character of Irene, who poisons the man trying to steal her throne. This led me to wonder what other fictional heroines could fit with the other prompts, and all of a sudden I had a sub-theme. I would draw a different heroine every day, hoping to wrap myself up in women who make things happen, whether that means toppling regimes or loving their families. So began #31DaysofHeroines.
I also had the great experience of being on an awesome Girl Power panel at the ReadUp Book Festival in Greenville, SC. For one hour, Gwenda Bond (Lois Lane: Fallout), Beth Revis (Give the Dark My Love), Hope Larson (All Summer Long), and I talked about our favorite heroines, writing wonderful women, and navigating our current social and political climate. I also got to sit in on other panels with some of my favorite YA authors, like Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles), Nic Stone (Odd One Out), and Becky Albertalli (Leah on the Offbeat) as they talked about identity, gender, and writing honest, powerful characters.
All this has led to a solid month of recalling all my favorite heroines from literature and movies and analyzing what I love about them. If you had asked me on September 30th, I would have wondered if I could see this sub-theme through to the end. Now I wish I had another three months of prompts to fill in. There are so many amazing girl characters that I wasn't able to incorporate. And simply surrounding myself with some of my favorite fictional women, both from my childhood and from recent reads, has revitalized me more than I ever would have expected a month ago.
It’s also highlighted some common threads among this spectrum of characters. Whether it’s a fairy tale a few centuries old or a fresh, progressive story from this year, I found that a handful of the same themes kept jumping out at me. So this month, for writers plotting out their mighty heroines, I’ve put together a list of six ways to elevate your heroines to the next level. Read them all after the jump!
My name is Brian Robeson and I am thirteen years old and I am alone in the north woods of Canada.
When I was in seventh grade, during the dawn of dial-up Internet and Angelfire websites, I wrote a fan letter to Gary Paulsen telling him how much I loved his adventure books. He replied with a signed typewritten letter and a Polaroid photo of him on a sailboat in a gray Alaskan inlet. The postscript of the letter went like this:
Read all the time; read when they tell you not to read, read with a flashlight under the covers, read on the bus, standing on the corner, waiting for a friend, in the dentist’s waiting room. Read every minute you can. Read like a wolf eats. READ.
I followed Gary Paulsen’s advice up until I reached grad school, when my life was overtaken by academia and, later, motherhood. But now, with two kids eager to devour the same adventures and worlds I did, and with my re-entry into the world of literature as an author, not just a reader, I’m happily rediscovering his wise advice to thirteen-year-old me. Reading isn’t just a pastime; it’s a gateway and lifeline to a broader human experience. Would I be a park ranger today if I hadn’t been transported to Brian Robeson’s L-shaped lake in northern Canada?
Hatchet was a foundational book for a lot of the scouts, rangers, and outdoorsfolk I hang out with—the story of a kid like us, a city boy from a stressful household, who finds himself lost in the rugged wilderness with a small hatchet as his only tool. It was equally captivating and terrifying to stumble along with Brian as he guesses his way through survival, relying on memories of action movies and shipwreck stories, giving childish names to the things he comes to rely on—gut cherries, foolbirds, food fish. And Hatchet certainly isn’t Gary Paulsen’s only survival story. Most of his work—even his autobiography and sci-fi work—is threaded with themes of struggle and cohesion with nature.
Survival remains one of my favorite tropes in literature. From childhood favorites like Island of the Blue Dolphins (O’Dell) and The Sign of the Beaver (Speare) to recent favorites like The Moor’s Account (Lalami) and In the Heart of the Sea (Philbrick), I’m a sucker for a story that throws a character into a wild unknown and forces them to adapt. And now that I’m a published author, I’m not just a sucker for reading these characters, but writing them, too. In fact, I’m mere paragraphs away in my current manuscript from stripping every bit of gear from my protagonists and pushing them into a fifty-mile expanse of waterless desert. Granted, I’m not sure how I’m going to get them across, but at this point they’re cleverer than me, and I expect they’ll show me.
Part one of “So Your Hero is Roughing It” focused on equipping your characters with the most basic gear they might need to survive a quest. This installment focuses instead on what happens when you take all that stuff away. I’ll make the same disclaimer here as I made in Part One: this is not a survival guide. Don’t screenshot this blog and head off into the Yukon. This is a resource for writers and role-players looking for plot nuggets and worldbuilding ideas. I’ve kept things relatively generic on purpose—a lot of your details will depend on what environment your characters are traveling through. Finding medicinal plants in a temperate rainforest is going to be a heck of a lot different from finding medicinal plants in high steppes. This is just a framework, not an in-depth guide.
Read more after the jump!
“What are you doing, Mrs. Beaver?” exclaimed Susan.
Ah, the quest—a staple of fantasy literature both classic and modern. Rugged journeys through wild lands, relying on wit and luck and the kindness of strangers. Quests and survivalism remain some of my favorite tropes to both read and write.
However, I have to admit, when I read a quest where there’s no mention of packs or bags—or more blatantly, when there’s a movie adaptation and no depiction of characters carrying gear—the ranger in me convulses a little. You, human, hiking through the wilderness—where’s your water bottle? Your map? Your fire kit? Your blanket?
I get it—bulky packs look silly (which is why Samwise carries one for comic relief), and too much time spent on travel minutiae can bog down a story’s pacing. But in fantasy worldbuilding, it’s often the mundane details juxtaposed with fantastic elements that create a complex, lived-in world. Seeing Hermione trying to stew mushrooms in a billy can in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows shows us how dire things can get, even for wizards. And seeing Mrs. Beaver determined to pack a few necessities despite the complaints of the others show that while strange and wonderful, Narnia is still a dangerous place for the unprepared.
This is one of two segments I’m planning to write on the topic of quest practicality—in this post I’ll focus on the most basic gear a typical human might need to survive in the wilderness, while the second installment will be on improvising the rest from the surrounding environment, like first aid, shelter, and clean water. This is all written for like-minded authors collecting ideas to flesh out their world- and character-building, not for adventurers looking to pull a Christopher McCandless and strike out into the wild. We can have that conversation another time, when I’m wearing my ranger hat.
Read more after the jump!
Quick, when I say Harry Potter, what’s the visual image that springs to your mind?
It’s probably a picture of the protagonists decked out with wands and robes, right? But is that all? Are they drifting in a void? Or do you see the setting around them—vast, mischievous Hogwarts castle, with its shifting staircases and moving portraits? The mysterious library, the murky lake, the rolling grounds?
As writers, we hear a lot about worldbuilding—the art of creating a deep, well-rounded world that provides the physical and cultural setting for our plot. When this is done well, any mention of a story instantly gives the reader a vivid mental picture. But worldbuilding can go a step further! Instead of just being a setting or backdrop for your characters to move through, it can become almost another side character—something that your characters don’t just react to, but interact with. Something that gives heft to the plot and affects the story.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator