Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920's mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.
"The definition of superb animation is that each character on the screen makes you believe it is a thinking being."
-Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar, and I thought his book, Creativity, Inc. about the history and inner workings of Pixar was fascinating. When I heard this insight about animation (I was listening to the audio book), I immediately thought of how that was true for written characters as well. That when a book comes alive for us as readers, it's when all the characters seem to be thinking beings rather than just words on a page.
For the writer, knowing your characters' backstories is the key to creating this illusion. You can probably think of a person in your real life who made you scratch your head until you learned more of their story, right? A friend who obsessed over her grades, and you couldn't understand why until you met her father and saw how hard he pushed her to excel. Or how an uncle who talks nonstop—always about things you don't care about—and you don't get why until you're at his house for dinner and you see how your aunt ignores him.
These little light bulb moments with real people can be created with our characters too. We can get away with our characters doing some very strange things, but only if we've taken the time to develop a backstory that supports it.
When I started working on The Lost Girl of Astor Street, my very basic idea for the plot was that Piper's (my main character) best friend went missing and Piper worked to find her.
But why would she do that? If my best friend went missing, I would certainly help the police as much as I felt able, but my instinct would not be to start my own investigation. So I had to figure out why Piper would do this. Especially because in order for Piper to come across as brave rather than stupid, her choices need to feel logical to the reader.
I've found it's often easiest to work backward on these sorts of plot puzzles. I start with the result I'm wanting, and I work my way backward to find pieces that make it work.
What I knew when I began was this: When Piper's best friend is missing, Piper goes looking for her.
I started brainstorming potential "Whys?". Maybe she feels responsible for some reason. Maybe there's something she knows about her best friend that no one else does. Maybe she doesn't trust the police. Maybe in general she doesn't trust others to do what they say they're going to do.
Eventually I landed on a combination of the above, but that trust one struck me as particularly interesting. Why doesn't Piper trust people? Who could have lied to her?
When I followed that question, I landed on her mother's death. When Piper was 13, her mother got the flu. Everyone told her that her mother would be fine, but she died. That would leave a girl with some trust issues!
You can apply this to your own book too, but here's a fun exercise just to see how it can play out in the early story stages: Two people are traveling somewhere. They don't get along with each other, but for some reason they are stuck together on this journey. Why? Try taking this several layers deep, just to see what fun things you can unearth.
I'd love to see what you came up with in the comments section!