What I Learned at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference – Part 4: Maggie Stiefvater Character Thief

 

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photo courtesy of Official SCBWI Conference Blog, photo by Marquita Hockaday
photo courtesy of Official SCBWI Conference Blog, photo by Marquita Hockaday

Maggie Stiefvater (or steve·otter, as she pronounced it) author of the NY Times best-selling SHIVER series gave an excellent workshop on character at the SCBWI LA Conference. Her novel THE SCORPIO RACES was a Michael L Printz Honor book. Her most recent series is THE RAVEN CYCLE.

She’s also a Character Thief.

This came about because she discovered that she could not create anything unique from scratch, the least of which was a believable character that could actually walk and breathe on their own. To create her own unique characters, she has to start with real, live human hearts. She moves on to create what she calls people portraits. Using her background as an equestrian portrait artist, moving on to people just made sense.

She wanted to create characters that you’d still be able to recognize as Stiefvater characters, not unlike pointing out master painters’ pieces, just from their style, from across a gallery floor.

Before she tells you how she creates her characters, she tells you some basic rules. Although she’s not big on rules herself, she did know the rules first. If you break the rules after you know them, then it’s experimenting.

Character Rules

  1. The narrator should be the character who shifts the plot the most.
  2. The narrator should also be the one who changes the most – a more intriguing character is one where the change is both internally and externally symbiotic.
  3. Characters have to be sympathetic/relatable – Maggie doesn’t actually believe in this rule, herself. She feels you should understand the motives of your characters, but you don’t have to agree with their choices.
  4. Writing as if you are the character – it’s bad writing to write self into a character. Especially if it’s accidental or if you’re having a character deal with a problem you yourself are facing at that moment. Ex: “When I’m angry, how do I react?” You should be wondering, “When my character is angry, how does my character react?” However Maggie also disagrees with this rule to a degree– if you accidentally do this, it’s bad, if you do it on purpose, then you’re creating a portrait of yourself.

 

How she steals characters is she begins with first impressions – like how you meet a person for the first time in real life. What you first notice about them.

Look past the first observations; look for something that contradicts your idea of who you think that person is. “Look at the moment when you change your mind about a character.”

She’s not a fan of character questionnaires – they don’t really tell you anything important about them. What they physically look like is mostly irrelevant. Doesn’t tell you WHY.

Character interviews can be helpful for voice. “I learn about my characters by moving them through the plot. I may throw out the first 10,000 words because I’m just using them to get to know the characters.”

Everything should be a character. This includes the setting, which can even have its own character arc. The forest in THE RAVEN CYCLE series, for instance, is a distinct character. It is sentient and plays a vital role in the series. The weather/setting arc in SCORPIO RACES mirrors the character arcs.

You want to lie as little as possible when creating your characters. The more fantastical you settings, the more realistic your characters should be.

Villains often have very clear motivations. Most people aren’t like this – not as clear-cut. For villains, whatever they want in life gets in the way of what the protagonist wants.

I had a chance to get a book signed by Maggie at the end of the conference, and true to her artistic roots, she had a little something extra for her fans who bought SINNER, the stand-alone companion to the SHIVER series. An original Stiefvater artwork book cover. Sweet, right?

Learn more about Maggie Stiefvater here.

Follow Maggie on Twitter here.

Follow Maggie on Tumblr here.

Sinner Cover 1Sinner Cover 2Sinner Cover 3

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