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Meeting Your Characters: Girls, Boys and Toads

Lari Don is the author of a whole host of books including her Spellchasers trilogy and is a super storyteller, so she knows a thing or two about creating characters. Here are some of her thoughts on strong females, scrapping stereotypes and totally different toads.

Once upon a time, girls were the favourite food of dragons, and boys could win a princess as a prize by slicing a dragon’s head off.

Let all your characters be and do anything they want.
Lari Don, Author of the Spellchasers trilogy

Once upon a time, a happy ever after ending was always a fairy-tale wedding...

Those were the stories I read when I was young. But I’m not sure that particular ‘once upon a time’ ever existed. I love finding old myths and legends, and I’ve discovered the story of a Viking girl who jumped into a grave to claim a cursed sword, a ten-armed Indian woman who defeated a demon, and a Sumerian goddess who wrestled a mountain, so there have always been strong girls in stories, even very old stories...

Nowadays we don’t have to look nearly so hard to see strong girls and powerful women, in stories or the real world. As young writers, you can take full and joyful advantage of that, and let all your characters be and do anything they want.

I don’t make up characters, I meet them (in my head, not in the street!) And when you meet someone for the first time, you don’t judge them on what they look like.

So why let the obvious bits of a character (their gender, colour, physical abilities, nationality...) dictate what they think or say or do, or decide their role in your story? Try not to make assumptions about your characters. Or even better, think about the assumptions you might initially make, then rip them up and do something completely different.

The brave big brother and the shy little sister... The reckless boy and the sensible girl... Why not make it the other way round? I’ve written some of my best characters by catching myself making assumptions about characters and switching them around.

I recently wrote a book with a character who was (temporarily) a toad. The other characters didn’t know whether the person trapped inside the toad was male or female, and neither did I, when I wrote the first draft. That freed me up to write the toad completely free of any boy / girl assumptions or behaviour at all, which was both fun and fascinating!

Every character should be an individual, a person (even toads or dragons or robots or unicorns) and there are so many more important and interesting things about a person than their gender: girl, boy or trans.

What does your character want, what are they scared of, what are they really good at, how will they react to danger, would they tell a lie, would they betray a friend? A character is never just a list of answers to questions. But by asking questions about how they think and what they do, you might feel a spark of connection to them, you might meet them and find out their story.

I hope you have fun meeting your characters, and I hope all your characters have more personality than those girls waiting to be saved from dragons in the stories I read when I was young!

Written by Lari Don, author of Girls, Goddesses and Giants and a storyteller at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

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