In her first event as an agent, former Simon & Schuster editor Alexandra Penfold spent a weekend teaching writers about character, and I was thrilled to be among them.
After an impressive career in book publishing, Alexandra moved to the other side of the desk this year, accepting an agenting position at Upstart Crow Literary. And after spending the weekend listening to her lectures and workshops at The Writing Barn, I know she’ll be a brilliant agent. She’s smart, passionate, insightful and a lot of fun.
At The Writing Barn, the first of the venue’s Advanced Writing Workshops, Alexandra gave two lectures on characters. “Characters are the heart and soul of any story,” she said, adding that the story should flow naturally from character.
Readers know when plot is being forced and characters are doing things they wouldn’t normally do just to advance the plot.
So what is plot? It should come from what the character needs or wants and what’s standing in his or her way.
Readers also like to figure things out for themselves, Alexandra pointed out, and that’s why showing character, instead of telling, is so important. Character can be shown through their decisions and actions, but their emotion also can be revealed through things like how they walk and sit. Do they walk tall or hunch over, for example.
Alexandra gave us a worksheet of questions that we can ask our characters. I’ve seen a lot of character interviews online with questions like what our characters’ favorite food is, favorite color, what their bedroom looks like. That’s all fine, but I like Alexandra’s better because it offers questions that are linked to the emotions of our characters, such as, what’s the last thing our character thinks about at night and the first thing in the morning? How do our characters think of themselves? How does that compare to how others see them? And more…
Characters can also be shown in word choice. And Alexandra read to us some wonderful examples of this, including the opening chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Anne of Green Gables and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. All brilliant.
Alexandra certainly knows a lot about character, and passed it on in a fun and informative manor. If you’re writing YA, middle-grade or quirky picture books, I definitely recommend you query her.