What Your Character Wants: 5 Questions for Sherri L. Smith

“I started writing when I was a kid, mostly because I loved books.  But it took many years of dabbling with short stories before I decided to devote myself to writing, which meant taking the time, making the space, and learning the tools to tackle every form.” -Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith writes contemporary, speculative, and historical fiction novels, as well as nonfiction and comics.  Her historical novels The Blossom and the Firefly and Flygirl have respectively been awarded the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Golden Kite and California Book Awards Gold Medal.  Sherri’s books appear on multiple state lists and have been named Amelia Bloomer and American Library Association Best Books for Young People selections.  She has worked in film, animation, comic books, construction, and a monster factory, and holds certificates in the Art of Archetypal Fairy Tale Analysis, Enchantivism, and Applied Mythology.  She is a member of the Two Trees Writers’ Collaborative and the founder of Story Forest, a liminal space where writers follow the old tales to find their own paths.  Currently she teaches in the MFA in Children’s Writing program at Hamline University.  Her new nonfiction book with Elizabeth Wein, American Wings:  Chicago’s Pioneering Aviators and the Race for Equality in the Sky, comes out in January 2024. Learn more at www.sherrilsmith.com       


On Saturday, September 9th, Sherri L. Smith is teaching a class for the WLT called “What Your Character Wants: Uncovering the Driving Force of Your Novel.” In this class, you’ll learn about character motivation and plot structure.

Here’s what Sherri had to share with us:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

Sherri L. Smith: I write young adult and middle grade fiction and nonfiction.  I also write comic books and graphic novels for all ages.  Genre-wise, I do a bit of everything—historical, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, mystery… I like to challenge myself with each book, and listen to what the story wants.  I started writing when I was a kid, mostly because I loved books.  But it took many years of dabbling with short stories before I decided to devote myself to writing, which meant taking the time, making the space, and learning the tools to tackle every form.

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

SLS: I am a plotter.  I like to outline and get the gist of where a story is going.  It’s very useful for when you get stuck—you can always go back to the plan.  But outlines are best held lightly so that you can discover new things as you go.   For other challenges, it helps to find your writing community.  Even if it’s only one or two other writers at the same level as you in terms of their career and writing strengths, it’s good to phone a friend when you feel out of sorts.  And if you can’t find one or two people like that, then consider joining a writing organization or even just going to book events.  Writing is a solitary job, but it doesn’t have to be lonely!

 Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

SLS: Ha!  Yeah, I have this feeling every few days, especially when starting a project.  And sometimes it lasts all day, or less than a hot minute.  Other times, it lasts to the end of the project because it really was the right path.  The good news is each epiphany does get you closer to where you need to be, so embrace it.  And if the feeling fades, don’t throw it all out.  Instead, see what it taught you and if there is a better direction to go from there.

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

SLS: Just do it!  Thinking about it is grand, but until we can read each others’ minds, the only way to share the book is to write the book.  I’ll add to that something my high school English teacher, Mrs. Robinson, used to say:  If it comes out of your mouth, it won’t come out on the page.  We tend to tell people what we want to write instead of just writing it.  And that means we open our stories up to criticism before they are anywhere near ready for it.  A spoken idea can lose the steam it needs to become a book.  It feels like you’ve done it already, and the reception was so-so (usually because the idea is not fully formed), and we go looking for something new.  So keep your mouth shut, and write!

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

SLS: “Character Wants” actually has another title, “The Little Engine That Should:  Using Character Wants to Drive Your Story.”  Everyone who takes this class will come away with that in mind.  If your story is slogging and slow, do you know what your character wants?  Wants are not always easy to get at—and I mean the deeper want.  What wound does your character have that needs healing?  When you figure that out (and you will have several possibly false epiphanies), you will discover the heart of your story.  This applies to everything you write, so once you learn it, it’s a simple, portable tool for your writer’s toolkit.

Thanks, Sherri!

Click here to learn more about Sherri L. Smith’s upcoming class.

Search Scribe By Category
Email Subscription