Character and new agent Alexandra Penfold

Alexandra Penfold

Agent Alexandra Penfold talks character.

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.

Samantha Clark and Varsha Bajaj

Me (l.) chatting with author Varsha Bajaj at the cocktail party that kicked off the weekend.

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…

Bethany Hegedus and Alexandra Penfold

Author and The Writing Barn owner Bethany Hegedus (c.) introduced Alexandra (far r.) to an eager crowd.

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.

Next up in The Writing Barn’s 2013 Advanced Writing Workshop is National Book Award novelist Sara Zarr in April and award-winning author Francisco X. Stork in November. I can’t wait.


6 Responses

  1. Happy to have you at the kick off event for the 2103 Adv. Writer Weekend Workshop series. I like the insight you picked up upon about revealing our character’s emotions and how they think about themselves and others in Alexandra’s talk.

  2. Terry Pierce says:

    Hi Samantha,
    Thank you for sharing your experience with Alexandra. It sounds fabulous! I’ve been trying to find submission information for her, ever since I hear the announcement about her joining Upstart Crow, but I’ve been unsuccessful. Did she announce anything regarding submissions? I’ve written Upstart Crow regarding her submission policies but haven’t received a response. Thanks for any advice–she sound fabulous!

    • Samantha says:

      Hey Terry, I’m glad you enjoyed my post. Upstart Crow will be updating their website with her information soon. I think that technically she doesn’t start there until February. Good luck!

  3. Thank you so much for passing along that information, Samantha! I greatly appreciate it :-).

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