Tuesday, July 19, 2011

VCFA Writers: Lyn Miller-Lachmann on Creating Likable Characters

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Nobody liked my protagonist.

Well, not nobody. Editors didn't like her. I had already cut her whining and made her helpful and friendly to her new stepfather in response to a harsh letter from an agent. But those changes didn’t make her any new editor friends.

As I began my second semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I decided to submit my initial chapters to the workshop to figure out why my now non-whiny and extraordinarily helpful teenager still wasn’t deemed “likeable.”

Interestingly, I found my answer not through discussion of my own manuscript, but through the discussion of someone else’s piece.

A mandatory part of VCFA residency is daily attendance at workshop. Residency workshops are round-table critiques of 20 pages of work -- among 10 students, at different levels of the program -- moderated by two faculty advisors. Each student receives a turn to have 20 pages of their manuscript critiqued by the group, for one-hour. For a writer with a work in progress, it doesn’t get any better than this.

The best thing about the workshops at VCFA is how much you learn by discussing the strengths and questions in each workshop submission -- your peers’ as well as your own.

It can be easier to absorb information when your “baby” is not on the block. Or, maybe someone else has achieved the effect you were struggling with and now you learn from that example. This is exactly what happened for me. My fellow workshop members and I grew to care about the angry and physically aggressive 10-year-old girl in another workshop member’s story for the following reasons:

  1. She didn’t whine, and she didn’t feel sorry for herself. (This I’d figured out before.)
  2. Behind her anger there was an emotional vulnerability that allowed readers to engage. My own protagonist saw herself as emotionally self-sufficient, and she was. But that much detachment and independence doesn’t give readers the opportunity to get involved and care. I needed to make her vulnerable.
  3. I learned that when other characters in the piece (characters who do appeal to readers) like and care about my main character, readers like and care about her more as well.

Initially, my novel was structured in such a way that readers didn’t see my main character interact with her friends. In other words, increasing the presence of people who liked her helped readers follow suit. All it took was adding friends who were funny and relatable to teen readers to like my character for her loyalty, sense of humor, and great ideas.

As they say, “Friends are people who know everything about you and like you anyway.”

Don't hold anything back from your readers, and they just might find that your character feels like a friend.

Cynsational Notes

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is in her second semester in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She is the author of an adult novel, Dirt Cheap (Curbstone, 2006)(now back in print), and the award-winning YA/adult crossover Gringolandia (Curbstone/Northwestern University Press, 2009)(excerpt, trailer, teacher guide).

She also contributes reviews to the online Albany Times-Union, Readergirlz, and The Pirate Tree, a new blog about social justice and children’s literature.

If you have any questions about her post or the MFA program at Vermont College, you can contact her directly at lyml@mac.com.


Kelly said...

Great post, Lyn. I love character likability discussions. And VCFA discussions.

Kelly Barson

dkm said...

This was great! I feel like I've been to a VCFA workshop on writing likable characters. Many thanks.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Kelly, I'm with you on both counts.

And DKM, I'm so glad you found the post helpful.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Kelly, after my workshop last semester I read your critical thesis on likable characters, and it was such a great guide. I hope you get it published somewhere because a lot of writers can benefit from both your general points and your specific examples from classic and contemporary novels.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Lyn, thanks so much for surfing by and sharing your thoughts! Terrific post!

Lindsey Lane said...

Lyn, Chiming in late here just to say hello and I love how you show the vulnerability of yourself as a writer in this post. Showing by example. Nice work. But then, I kinda knew how smart you were in your first VCFA workshop.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

So true, Lindsey. An example of the kind of courage it takes to write well.

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