Tell me about the process of writing a character. Do you live in the world until it’s done or can you turn it on and off?
There are three main things I focus on when building a character: what they want (including what they don’t realize they want), voice, and secrets.
Usually voice comes to me first. It’ll be little tidbits here and there, a sentence disembodied from a paragraph, floating in my mind. It’s as if the character is whispering directly to me, desperate to tell her story to someone. These small glimpses start to pile up until they form the basis for the character’s personality. Soon that character is blabbering to so fast, I’m scrambling to get it all down.
My process for capturing voice tends to go like this: I jot all these sentences down as they come to me in a dedicated Evernote notebook for each project. I love Evernote for brainstorming because it auto-syncs to all my devices. My characters especially love to jabber to me while I’m lying in bed about to fall asleep, so having my phone nearby to write down these tidbits is a necessity.
At this point I usually don’t have a plot, only a character. Some examples from other projects I’ve written: A genius teen scientist who wears stilettos and rules her school. A shy girl stifled by her dance star sister’s shadow. And then in Alice in Wonderland High, Whitney’s riddle-speaking voice and Kingston’s crazy one-liners popped in my mind before Alice herself started speaking to me in her humorous but determined way.
Once I have the character’s personality and general way of thinking down, I need to unearth what they want so I can throw obstacles in their way of getting what they want. This is where plot tends to unlock for me. Here I usually start with a scenario that’s directly incongruous to the character’s personality.
For my genius teen scientist, the one thing she’d desperately want is to see her invention make waves around the world (in this case, her invention was mind-uploading software). I then used her invention against her by having a hacker delete her memories. Now she can’t remember her project or even parts of herself. Her want then shifts into plot: she wants her memories back. (This project is sci-fi.)
My stifled dance star sister wants the one thing she can’t seem to get: the spotlight. So I had her get that spotlight…by permanently injuring her sister. The plot then becomes her quest for forgiveness because she realizes what she really wanted the whole time was her sister’s respect.
And then for Alice, what she’s wanted all along is to finish what her parents started. Her friends think it’s weird and so when she witnesses Whitney, Chess, and Kingston performing the very acts of environmentalism she’d dreamed of doing, her goal shifts. Now she wants to be part of their group. But the group isn’t what it appears to be, throwing a wrench into her plans. Whitney, Chess, and Kingston each have their own wants they’re going after that helped me shape their characters. And that brings me to:
For me, characters are the most interesting when they’re hiding something. This not only gives me some mystery to work with but rounds out who the characters are. What they hide tells me a lot about them. Alice hides her new friends from her old friends. Chess keeps a secret so huge, it quite literally ruins his life when the secret is revealed. Kingston’s secret makes him both the enemy and an ally. But even minor characters have secrets. Quinn, Di, and Dru all hide something at some point in the novel.
Going back to my other examples, my stifled sister keeps the truth about what she did to her older sister under wraps, causing a spiral effect that dominos through her high school when news gets out. My genius teen hacker uncovers truths about her past she’d never would have believed possible, that leads her to wonder why she hid certain things from other people when her current self would want to shout them from the rooftops.
Despite everything above, my first instinct is not always correct. Revisions are a necessary part of character creation for me. This is when I deepen the characters and add in the little idiosyncrasies that help make a character unique. But sometimes I change a character’s personality completely during revisions. Chester Katz is a good example of where this happened. In my first draft, he was more serious, a little more intense, but he came off totally wrong and unlikable to my beta readers. They told me he seemed controlling and harsh. The general facts about him remained the same, and his secrets, but I added humor to soften him. I switched up his actions and mannerisms to help swing the pendulum back toward sympathetic.
Voice comes out more for me in revisions as well, especially for the protagonist. During line edits, I tend to rewrite every single sentence. I amp up the prose by injecting voice into places it lacked. Dialogue becomes snappier, which alters characters. Metaphors, punchier. Things like that.
Do you live in the world until it’s done or can you turn it on and off?
My answer to both is yes. Yes, I live in the world but I can also turn it on and off. Usually scenes play out in my mind like movies, complete with inner monologue voice overs. I like to mull these over whenever I have downtime: walking to work, shower, lying in bed at night, during boring work meetings. But if I have something important to do, like a non-boring work meeting or when playing with my toddler, I can shut off the thought process and come back to it again when I’m ready.
I also tend to brainstorm multiple projects at once. As long as I have a voice to latch onto, I pull on that like a string and I can focus on that project instead of another. This skill I attribute to my old job as a computer animator, where I’d have to switch between lots of different projects done in different animation styles several times throughout the day. I had to learn to be able to adapt in only a minute or so, since my time was billed that way.
Sixteen-year-old Alice just can’t find a way to be free. Her parents are environmental activists, whose cringe-worthy public protests might involve chaining themselves to a fence and pleading with passersby to “Save the World. Save Alice!” It’s not that Alice doesn’t believe there’s work to be done. But after a petition to start a farmer’s market meets with more snickers than signatures, she figures she should shut up instead of speaking out. At least, that is, until she can find something that feels real. Then along comes Whitney Lapin, a girl who speaks in cryptic riddles and spends her free time turning abandoned warehouses into beautiful gardens. Charismatic Whitney leads Alice on a rabbit trail into the underground–aka secret society–of Wonderland High. Curiouser and curiouser.
Alice is in wonderland! Even though Whitney’s group of teenage environmental vigilantes operates on the wrong side of the law, with them, Alice is finally free to be herself. She stomps on her good girl image by completing a series of environmental pranks to impress the new group: flooding the school and disguising a pig as a baby in order to smuggle it out of a testing facility. She wants to trust them, and she especially wants to trust (or maybe kiss) Chester Katz, a boy with a killer smile, a penchant for disappearing, and a secret that will turn Alice’s world backwards. But then, one of the young vigilantes tries to frame Alice for all the pranks, and she must figure out their secret before she ends up in front of a jury screaming, “Off with her head!”
Rachel Shane studied Creative Writing at Syracuse University and now works in digital publishing at in New York City. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, young daughter, and a basement full of books. This is her first novel.