Creating Memorable Characters by author/literary agent Mandy Hubbard

Dude! We welcome the talented author of PRADA & PREJUDICE and YOU WISH, both available now from Razorbill/Penguin, literary agent extraordinairre at D4EO… you know who it is, right?

Mandy Hubbard! (Click here to visit her website.) She’s going to let us in on some secrets for creating memorable characters. Hang on tight.

When Lisa and Laura Roecker, two of the lovely organizers of this conference, asked me to write my post about “Creating Memorable Characters,” I, uh, laughed. Because I had the worst time creating memorable characters early in my career. When my first agented manuscript, THE JETSETTER’S SOCIAL CLUB, went on submissions, the editors pointed directly at the character as they rejected me. They were: too young/naive, too  mature/edgy, too similar, too different.

Now, here is where I went wrong. I looked at that and told myself, “They all disagree! So clearly, we just need to keep going. Like Goldilocks. We need our perfect fit.”

Uh, no. Because here’s the thing: they may have had different reasons on the surface. But what did they have in common? THE CHARACTERS. Every editor was trying to tell me that they weren’t connecting with the characters. And I should have listened. But I was but a naïve little writer, sure that my offer was just around the corner.

Soon, my agent moved on to Prada & Prejudice, and began submitting it. Right off the bat, guess what we ran into? Character issues. But this time around, editors liked it enough to ask me to revise. So, revise I did.

Until I was 7 drafts into it. And then I got a revision request to end all revision requests.

I had to rewrite it. From scratch.

And here’s when something  finally clicked into place. I stepped back and I looked at my story, looked at the new direction of the plot. And I asked myself– What kind of character would be most interesting in this story? I was throwing a modern girl into 1815. What kind of modern girl would struggle the most in that situation?

Little Callie, who had once been 18, snarky, and fashionable, became a 15 year old clumsy geek girl struggling to fit in. Because if she can’t fit in 2010, how in the world will she feel in 1815?

This moment, to me, is the most important in creating a memorable character–  it’s the moment before you truly start writing. You have your idea—your hook. Maybe you have most of the plot worked out in your head. What you need is the right character to throw in there. A character who will struggle with the conflicts you throw at her.

In other words—your character and your conflict work together to form the perfect, memorable book. By choosing the right character type, you’ll maximize your ability to exploit all the other parts of the book—conflict, tension, plot, heck, even setting.

To do this, should know your character’s archetype.  I found an interesting two part article that shows archetypes for romance—8 heroes, and 8 heroines. They can be modified to fit a teen, of course.

But we all know that characters are like onions—multilayered, and you only get to see each layer as you peel them back. And the Archetype is just the outer layer.

From here, authors do any number of things—they create collages, they answer questionnaires, they model protagonists after television characters.

You should be able to create simple data sheets for your characters—beyond height, eye /hair color, etc, include deeper questions—is your character afraid of death? What is one thing she has always wanted to do, but is too afraid to try? Who does she want to become?  Who is she afraid she’ll become? What does she most admire about her best friend? Her Mother?

Think of as many questions as you can. Type up the questions, and the answers. Dig deep.

Once you think you know your character, start writing. Use your plot and conflict to expose those secrets. If your character is Type A, always wants to be in control, for the love of god, DO NOT tell us that. Let us see it. Give her a color-coded, tabbed, perfectly organized binder that she tucks into her backpack after class. Let her swing open her locker, placing her textbooks exactly in their designated slots.

And then, once we get to see all that—once you’ve demonstrated her Archetype through actions and dialog– blow it all to hell. Use the plot to force your character out of her comfort zone. Because remember how choosing your character helps the plot? It works both ways. If your character struggles to remain in control, throw a plot twist at her that will wreck everything, and let’s see how she reacts. PERFECT CHEMISTRY by Simone Elkeles does this beautifully—outwardly, the protagonist has everything. Perfect Hair. Perfect Grades. But then she meets a Hispanic gang member, and her perfect control begins to slip. It was the marriage of the plot and character that created a memorable protagonist.

As an agent, it’s so, so important that your character is well-developed. The market is tougher than ever right now, and that means we need the whole package—great hook, great writing, great characters.

So in a nutshell, here it is:

A)     Decide on a character Archetype that will create the most conflict/tension.

B)      Using your character’s archetype, dig deeper—create a collage if you’re visual, or type up your own Q&A about your character. You can also use those stilly questionnaires that teens like to forward to each other.

C)      SHOW us your character, don’t tell us. For instance, if your character is shy/awkward, please, please do not have her think, “I do not feel comfortable in crowds. I would like to avoid them. I am a shy person.” Instead, have her wipe her sweaty palms on her jeans. Let her stomach lurch when the teacher calls on her in class.

D)     Use the plot to your advantage. For the character above—shove her in front of an audience. Let’s see how hard you can push before it’s too much.

I hope that helps, everyone! Good luck to you.

Mandy Hubbard joined D4EO Literary after interning at the Bent Agency. She represents a broad range ofmiddle grade and teen fiction, whether they be contemporary or historical, fantasy/paranormal or realistic. She is also the author of PRADA & PREJUDICE (Razorbill/Penguin, June 2009), DRIVEN (Harlequin, June 2010), YOU WISH (Razorbill/Penguin, August 2010) four other forthcoming YA novels.

43 thoughts on “Creating Memorable Characters by author/literary agent Mandy Hubbard”

  1. Thanks, Mandy! I loved this thought: “your character and your conflict work together to form the perfect, memorable book.” That’s a great way to think about a book idea!

    I loved your story about changing your MC in Prada & Prejudice. I recently did that w/one of my manuscripts–started with the premise and rewrote it from scratch. It was the best thing I ever did for that story.

  2. Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to do this, Mandy. Great tips.! And thanks for the 8 Heroes/8 Heroine links They will definitely come in handy

  3. Find your MC’s archetype then challenge it. Brilliant advice for uncovering the depth of your character – both written and in real life. Thank you, Mandy.

  4. This is great advice even if Characters is your strong point, you can always dig deeper! Deeper characters = better plot. Great article! Printing for my trusty notebook!

  5. I love the part where you were like, “They’re all different, so it’s a matter of personal taste. Uh, no.” So many writers fall into this trap (including myself)

  6. I’m in the process of a rewrite, and I think this is the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at my characters. Now I’m wondering if I have the right character types for my plot.

    I’ve been helped so much by everything in this conference that I think it might have been put together just for me. 😉

    Seriously though, all the presenters have been amazing so far. It’s only the morning of day two and already I’ve learned more about the craft of writing than I have in all my years of working at it and reading books on writing . . . or maybe I’ve learned some of it before, but didn’t really understand it until now. 😀

  7. Ha! I thought, “MY characters aren’t archetypes,” but lo and behold, there they are. Very enlightening! Thanks for the info, Mandy.

  8. Thanks Ms. Hubbard for your insight. I read Praada and Prejudice and loved it. Especially the end when the girls are shocked that she….oh, I better not say. There may be someone who hasn’t read it.

    Thanks for letting us know about your stubborness to change. Ha. That’s something we all need to learn.

  9. Thank you so much for the post, Mandy. The whole time I was reading it I was agreeing and reminding myself it’s exactly what you said that I need to keep doing to work out the new characters that I continue to work with in new stories of mine.
    And what you said does really work. Giving a character an archetype is so HELPFUL.

    Thanks for talking with us, Mandy.
    Happy writing

  10. Thanks for this, Mandy. If the characters aren’t memorable, the reader can definitely lose interest in the story. That really helped, on a personal inspiration level, to know that you struggled so much with character development in your own books. It’s always helpful to hear that published authors (as well as literary agents that also write) made the same mistakes we do when we’re trying to break in.

  11. Extremely helpful! Thank you. The line where you asked yourself about “What type of character would work best in this situation?” was just what I needed.

  12. This is cool stuff. I feel like playing around with my characters now…….Ooh. Ok. That sounded better in my head. But you know what I mean.

    Anyway, Thanks.

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