Whenever I run a creative writing workshop with middle schoolers, I always bring a blank sheet of paper and an apple. First I hold up the paper. I tell the kids that it represents a flat character--someone who's the same way all the time, from the first page on. "Paper" characters have no secrets, no quirks. They're the one-dimensional stereotypes--the Wicked Witch, The School Bully.
Then I hold up the apple. First I show its reddest, smoothest, most perfect side. Then I slowly rotate the apple by its stem, pointing out the bruises, freckles, bumps, discolorations, bird pecks--everything that makes that apple unique, everything that suggests that apple's back story.
I tell the kids: See how this apple just looked like a standard, boring Delicious at first? But when you watch it over time, you see its other sides. That's how to create good characters. Don't show everything on page one--gradually reveal the little bruises and bird pecks, everything that makes your character unique and surprising.
Four out of my five tween novels are written in the first person, from the tween protagonist's perspective. My protagonists are all flawed in one way or another, which makes them fun for me to write about. And because they're all tweens doing normal tween things-- living at home, going to school--they constantly interact with adults. The challenge for me is to create adult characters who are "apples"--unique individuals with fully imagined back stories--and to convey all this through the perspective of a tween who probably thinks of the adults in her life as "paper:" The Clueless Mother. The Weird Teacher.
When the adult is a wildly idiosyncratic, obviously flawed person like the mom in TRAUMA QUEEN, it's not too hard to imagine her as someone with a history. But when the mom is more conventional, like Jen in my new book THE (ALMOST) PERFECT GUIDE TO IMPERFECT BOYS, it's a bit more difficult to suggest the depths of her character, especially when the tween narrator doesn't get it. Still, I think it's part of my job to show that adults are people, too--not flat stereotypes or stock authority figures .
And in fact, the mom in IMPERFECT BOYS is one of my favorite mom-creations. What I love about her is that you can always see her wheels turning. She's a stay-at-home blogger trying to raise non-sexist toddler twins while struggling to connect with a thirteen year old daughter careening towards adolescence. All this makes her crazy-tired (or, to use Finley's word, "mental"), but she stays feisty, funny, passionately committed to both work and family. Yes, she worries too much, and yes, sometimes she overreacts, but she's the first to acknowledge that she's no expert on child-rearing. "No parent has all the answers," she tells Finley. "We're all just figuring it out as we go along."
I think Finley's mom is pretty cool--not perfect, because perfect would be boring.
Oh, and did I mention she's a whiz at frog-catching?
Barbara Dee is the author of the tween novels Just Another Day in my Insanely Real Life, Solving Zoe (2010 Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year), This Is Me From Now On, Trauma Queen, and The (Almost) Perfect Guide To Imperfect Boys.
She lives with her family in Westchester County, New York. You can visit her on the web at www.barbaradeebooks.com.