“Writing is, above all, a matter of faith – in yourself, your story, and your characters. If you trust that things will fall into place, they almost always will.”
Jennifer Ziegler is the author of over 25 books, including everything from stand-alone novels to series work to TV tie-ins, and ranging in genre from quirky comedy to action-adventure to dystopian. Her books have been featured on the Lone Star List and International Reading Association’s Young Adults Choice list, recommended on NPR’s “Tell Me More,” optioned for film, and adapted into stage musicals. She also had the honor of serving as The Writers’ League of Texas’s Program Director until March of this year. Ziegler lives with her husband, author Chris Barton, in Austin, where she continues to write books, lead writing workshops, and give presentations at schools, conferences, and book festivals.
Jennifer is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Developing Characters: Make Readers Root for Your Protagonist” on Saturday, October 1 at the ACC Highland Campus. This class will help writers understand the role characters play in storytelling and give tips on how to find and develop them — and thereby, the plot. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: What does it mean to craft believable characters? Can a great story be purely plot-driven?
Jennifer Ziegler: It depends on how you define “great story.” There are classic and entertaining stories out there with very thin or largely symbolic characters. For example, many myths and legends, some cartoons and comic books, ghost stories told around the campfire, plots of many slasher films, etc. But I do think a novel has to have a complex and relatable character (or more than one) at its center.
Plots of novels tie directly into character. There is a being of some sort who wants something–or is in a dilemma. How this being proceeds to solve this problem or attain this goal is the plot. For the story to be truly effective and relatable, we have to have a clear sense of who the characters are and why this struggle is so important to them. Then, as the story unfolds and they experience failures and triumphs, they change– at least a little. Thus, the plot is two-fold: the surface action and the character’s personal growth. Two arcs that are tied together.
Scribe: In your own writing, can you give us an example of a time during the writing process that you struggled to make a character realistic? What did it take to bring that character to life?
JZ: In my middle grade series, I didn’t know my main characters when I first started–I only knew that they were triplet sisters. However, it was vital that they be three distinct individuals and not just one character times three. For a long time, I struggled with the characterization, and then one evening I was at a party and introduced myself to friends of a friend. As we chatted, I discovered that they had twin girls. They told me about how they were similar, but also different. One detail in particular stood out: that their favorite game to play was Presidential Trivia. That, to me, said so much. I went on to borrow that nugget of information and apply it to my triplets. I figured out that they were also history buffs and very civic minded. The oldest (by a few minutes) planned to someday be President of the United States and was very take-charge in her personality. The middle triplet hoped to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and was the quietest and most thoughtful of the three. Meanwhile, the youngest triplet wanted to be Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and was the most social and active sister. Sometimes one detail–one frame of reference–can make all the difference in the world.
Scribe: You mention in your class description that characters can “rebel against you.” What advice do you have for writers in these situations—should writers try to wrangle characters that rebel?
JZ: Most of the time, the characters know best and wrangling them will backfire. They are the ones going through whatever hell you are putting them through. They will react/act according to who they are. If you try to make them do otherwise, the story will fall flat. Sometimes the answer is to follow their lead. Other times you can compromise. It’s a process of letting something go. Must you have this plot point happen? Must this character be the one to make it happen? Are there alternatives that make sense according to what already exists on the page?
Scribe: In situations where a writer feels inspired to write about a character but has no clear plot, what are some problem-solving techniques they can use to uncover that character’s journey?
JZ: That’s something I’ll really delve into during the class. Basically, it depends on what the author knows about the character. Who is this being? Where does he/she come from? What are his/her goals, fears, quirks? If characters come to you, spend time with them. Get to know them. Listen. After a while, they will tell you their stories.
Writing is, above all, a matter of faith – in yourself, your story, and your characters. If you trust that things will fall into place, they almost always will.
Click here to register for Jennifer’s class.
Click here for our current class schedule.