MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Characterization

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Crafting a well-drawn, fully-formed character is one of the hardest parts of writing. And one of the most important. No high-octane, super exciting plot is going to matter if the reader doesn’t care about the character. In THE VANDERBEEKERS, Karina Yan Glaser doesn’t just have to create one real-feeling main character, but six! And yet, she’s able to do so within the very first chapter (only fifteen pages!).

So how does she do it? Well, let’s take a look.

The details and bits that make a character come to life are referred to as CHARACTERIZATION. Characterization includes how a character looks, what they like, how they react to things, their hobbies, their quirks, their idiosyncracies, their vocabulary — all of it. With six characters, Glaser has to characterize each one distinctly and with only a few, efficient brush strokes. Below, I’ve listed different ways that we can reveal a character’s nature with each Vanderbeeker sibling and the brief passages that give us insight into them. Most of these use several techniques at once, obviously. But I tried separating them a bit to help you see the different tools in Glaser’s toolbox.

Backstory

Isa – Isa had discovered Mr. Beiderman’s particular distaste for instruments six years ago, when she was in first grade. She was performing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on her tiny, one-eighth-sized instrument for their second-floor neighbor, Miss Josie. Isa stood outside Miss Josie’s apartment, but halfway through her song, Mr. Beiderman’s door on the third floor burst open. He yelled down the staircase for the terrible racket to stop or he would call the police. Then the door slammed.

The police! On a six-year-old violinist! Isa was in tears, and Miss Josie invited her in and fed her cookies from a delicate china dish and gave her a pretty lace handkerchief to dry her eyes. Then Miss Josie insisted that Isa keep the handkerchief, which Isa to this day stowed in her violin case.

This might seem like a story about Mr. Biederman, but it actually makes Isa this real person to the reader. Not only do we see her backstory of playing the violin, but we can tell that she is gentle and soft. That she appreciates pretty things. That she appreciates kind gestures. Look at how she remembers that moment. It says so much about her.

Outward Appearance

Laney – “What’s a dorce?” interrupted Laney, who was four and three-quarters years old and practicing her forward rolls on the carpet. She was wearing an outfit of red plaids, lavender stripes, and aqua polka dots that she had matched herself.

What can we see about Laney here? We read her as innocent and sweet. But possibly a handful and full of energy (hello, forward rolls.) What do you think her outfit says about her? I think it says free-spirit, independent, and bright and colorful!

Dialogue

Jessie – “It means Mama and Papa don’t love each other anymore,” said twelve-year-old Jessie, glaring at her parents from behind chunky black eyeglasses. “What a nightmare.”

And then later: “Are you serious? We’ve been so good, there might as well be halos above our heads!” exclaimed Jessie, her glasses slipping down the bridge of her nose.

What can we surmise about Jessie from these two excerpts? I’m definitely getting attitude and a bit of a sharp-around-the-edges personality.

The Reactions of Others

Hyacinth – “Is it because I can’t keep Franz quiet?” asked Hyacinth as she chewed her fingernails. When Franz heard Hyacinth say his name, his tail gave a little wag and his eyes fluttered open, then drifted closed again.

Two sentences, and yet we already can tell that Hyacinth cares about animals and that animals love her. We also see that she is a bit on the nervous side, with the fingernail chewing.

Narrator Exposition

Of course, the Vanderbeeker home itself is also a character. One that the narrator straight up tells us things about. The paragraph on page 18 does this wonderfully.

The Vanderbeekers’ home—a humble red brown-stone with a weathervane that spun on windy days—sat in the exact middle of the street. The brownstone stood out not because of its architecture, but because of the constant hum of activity that burst out of it. Among the many people who had visited the Vanderbeeker household there was quite a bit of debate about what it was like, but general agreement about what it was NOT: Calm, Tidy, Boring, Predictable.

You don’t really need to draw any additional conclusions here because the narrator has told us exactly what the home is. However, she has done it in such a way that the house feels like an old friend, doesn’t it?

All of it Together

Oliver – Oliver, who was nine years old and wise to the ways of the world, put down his book and squinted. “Are you guys getting divorced? Jimmy L’s parents got a divorce. Then they let him get a pet snake.” He kicked the backs of his sneakers against the tall stack of ancient encyclopedias he was sitting on.

There is so much information in just this paragraph. Already we can see the Oliver is smart, but maybe a little too smart. That he cares, but maybe tries to act like he doesn’t. You get the feeling that he likes snakes, wouldn’t mind getting a snake, and really likes to learn (as evidenced by the stack of encyclopedias.) The inclusion of sneakers on his feet also points to something. What is it?

As you read through the book, be sure to pay attention to other instances where the author quickly paints a picture of each character.

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