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“Waiting in the Deep”: A Character Development Workshop with Rita Williams-Garcia

When I first heard about the Kweli Journal’s annual Color of Children’s Literature Conference for writers (the 2018 conference marked its seventh year), I couldn’t wait to attend. A conference dedicated to books about children of color and the people who create those books? What an amazing opportunity! And a chance to meet and learn from renowned author Rita Williams-Garcia? I immediately signed up for her master class, “Waiting in the Deep: A Character Study.”

The afternoon of the class, I joined the other participants at a large conference table. Our wise and gracious teacher asked us to introduce ourselves by talking about our greatest fear. In a room of twenty strangers. Uh-oh.

As the group shared one worrisome scenario after another, I found myself torn between wanting to reveal and conceal my own fears. My heart was pounding! What a relief when my turn ended and the next person spoke. But it surprised me to be so unnerved by the experience.

“Fear is hard to share,” Rita told us after she’d revealed some of her own formidable fears. “Yet you can’t be an advocate for your character if you don’t understand and respect his or her fear.” She implored us to regard this fragile aspect of our characters as very real and coming from their souls — not from our own egos as writers. This is why Rita wanted us to be aware of our own fears as well. As we empower ourselves by overcoming our fears, so do our characters.

After establishing fear as the anchor of deep characterization, Rita discussed characters’ wants, needs, and costs. Even if a character seems to know what he or she wants, it’s the author’s job to see what this character truly needs. Then there is the cost — what will the character have to sacrifice to get those needs met? What is this person willing to go through? Sometimes, Rita told us, the character must be pushed to the wall.

To illustrate this point, Rita read aloud a portion of her middle-grade novel Gone Crazy in Alabama. In the passage, Delphine and her younger sisters are traveling alone by bus, all the way from Brooklyn to Alabama. Not only does main character Delphine watch over her siblings, she also takes note of a young man traveling solo. As the oldest sister, Delphine is caught between wanting the carefree life of a kid and needing to be a responsible caretaker. This tension permeates the entire story.

In the example above, all the characters — Delphine, her sisters, and the boy on the bus — serve a specific purpose. As Rita told us, “Everyone has to earn and own his or her own spot in the book.” In this way, the community of secondary characters can play a role in shaping the main character.

Rita described how she contemplates the “air” of the world in each new story she creates. What world does the character already inhabit? What are the sights and sounds? What are the headlines in the news? What entertainment and pastimes surround the character? And how does the main character interpret this information? I found this last question to be especially pertinent for characters of color, who likely inhabit more than one culture and who might not find themselves to be authentically represented in the dominant, mainstream culture.

For research, Rita suggested that we get as close as possible to the world of our stories. While displaying her color-coded research notebooks for her upcoming book set in the South in the 1860s, she told us that she visited several Southern plantations to get a feel for the historical era. She even spent time with livestock to re-create the experience of milking a cow early in the morning.

Next, Rita shared a powerful technique she uses to visualize the colors, scenery, music, mood, and time period her characters inhabit — a story collage. She showed us a collection of images inspired by her recent novel Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. The soft, muted gray tones that permeate the collage represent Clayton literally going underground in the subway as well as his emotional descent through personal turmoil.

One of the biggest “aha” moments of the workshop came when Rita reminded us that our characters exist both before and after the timeline of the actual book. It’s important to know how the events and characters of the novel interconnect before the story begins. And to imagine the life of the character after the story, even in the lives of the other characters. After the reader closes the book, how will the main character’s existence continue?

Then Rita directed us away from the fictional characters in our middle-grade novels to the most important kids of all — the children reading them. “Your work is for you,” she said, “but not just you. It is for the next generation. With that in mind, the work must also bring joy, hope, and surprises.” How will our young readers see themselves in our narratives? For authors of color, this is a particularly poignant and resonant question.

During the last portion of the class, we focused on our own stories. Using paper, glue sticks, images we’d brought from home, and Rita’s portable printer, we created story collages for our own works in progress. This hands-on creative exercise paired well with the storytelling tools Rita had given us earlier. It brought our stories to life right before our eyes. For me, the exercise revealed even deeper dimensions of the characters and themes of the middle-grade novel I’m now writing.

As we assembled our story collages, Rita consulted with each participant one-by-one. She commented on our manuscripts, answering questions and offering suggestions in her distinctively intuitive yet scholarly style. Rita’s insights helped me to envision my main character’s journey in a powerful new light. I’m sure that many of us left that room with a deeper understanding of our characters and stories.

From the November/December 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Andrea J. Loney About Andrea J. Loney

Andrea J. Loney is the author of Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! (Lee & Low), and Bunnybear (Whitman). Her article is based on a writers’ workshop at Kweli Journal’s annual Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York City on April 6, 2018.

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