Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Mary: Getting to Know my Characters

I’ve been working with Sara to get a manuscript ready for submission. It’s a middle grade novel about a nine-year-old girl named Tillie who lives with her uncle in an old piano factory that has been converted to artists’ studios. Sara thought the ms. was just about ready to go. Except for one thing.

“I think we could have a bit more about [Tillie’s] mom and how they were when they lived at the piano factory--I can't picture her,” Sara wrote to me in an email.

No problem, I thought. A few words here, a new scene there—I looked forward to fleshing out Tillie’s absent mother. Revision at this stage in the game, is fun.

If Sara had asked about the mom in earlier drafts of the novel, however, I wouldn’t have felt so cavalier.

Draft one: Mom? What mom? All I was going on back then was a vision of a young girl rollerblading on the uneven wooden floors of an old piano factory, a girl with fierce determination to learn how to skate. Don’t ask me about a mom, I would’ve told Sara then. It doesn’t matter! Leave me alone and let me write skating scenes.

I wrote a lot of skating scenes. I was getting to know Tillie.

Draft two: Turns out Tillie lives with Uncle Fred. Her mom? She has nothing to do with the story, I would’ve told Sara. I just want to write scenes with Tillie and Uncle Fred and the other people in Tillie’s world.

I wrote a lot of scenes with Uncle Fred and the other people in Tillie’s world. I was getting to know my characters. But I didn’t yet have much of a story.

Gradually, over a series of drafts and revisions, meanderings and false starts, the mom began to emerge. I tried to push her away. I didn’t want her in my story. It was too sad, too hard. I wanted Tillie to have a happy story.

But Tillie had a huge hole in her heart—her motivating force—and that hole was put there by her mom.

So I wrote about the mom, I dreamed about the mom, I journaled about the mom. By the time of Sara’s email, I had spent so much time with all my characters that it was no problem to bring “a bit more” of the mom to the story.

For me, this is the joy of revision. To come to the point in my work, that I don’t have to think about what to write. My characters, now fully imagined, show me the way.


  1. No truer words were ever written about what it's like to revise. Thanks, Mary!

  2. Wow- interesting post. It makes me want to like revision more! Maybe a new perspective on it, like this one, was just what I needed...

    Thanks for sharing this- I enjoyed it!

  3. Eerily similar to my experience writing my tween novel, The Right-Under Club. The character's mother has abandoned her. End of story. Except Sara and my editor wanted to know more, forcing me to flesh out the backstory, which then turned into a major plot theme of my sequel. Thanks for sharing.

  4. So true, Mary! But also so natural. When I first start writing I'm so wrapped up in the protagonist (the word "obsessed" has been thrown around). Like your roller skating fixation, I want to know how my main character would react to everything: from the song on the radio, to the rude person behind me at the grocery store. It's only after I have a deeper knowledge of the hero that I can expand my vision and ask "who's next?" Thanks!

  5. I love to hear good revision stories--there can be such joy in the process! Thanks for the post.

  6. Nice post! Character development and realization take time and work and exercise! I LOVE that you can still refer to revision as "a joy." Through these revisions and getting to know your character, did you change tense? POV? How did you get through the layers of discovery?