Unless we're talking about Tristram Shandy, the story of your novel starts in the middle of someone's life. Everything that has happened up till then has been formative in some way, obviously with some events more important than others. The trick of this exercise is to create the biography of your protagonist up to the point where the story opens. For practice, Katherine asked all of us to make a list of the 10 most important/memorable events in our own lives to date, and then create a one or two page autobiography, finding the aspects of self that are revealed through these events. For instance, when I was about four years old, I took a pair of pink plastic scissors for safely cutting paper dolls and trimmed off my two-year-old sister's golden curls, which were the admiration of all. She stood patiently in her crib while I did it. I swore she gave me "permission," and that's all I remember of the event. However, in my family, the story is legend. What it reveals about my younger self, I leave that conclusion to you, dear reader.
To achieve depth and resonance and appropriate motivation, your protagonist should be as real to you as your self. Therefore, you need to know at least the ten most important milestones or events in his or her life. For the novel I was working on at the time of Katherine's workshop, I did, in fact, sit down and make such a list for my protagonist. And then as I wrote her biography, her character emerged more fully and I understood where she had come from and what made her the way she was today. I knew a lot more about her relationship with her twin. Some of the verbiage I developed in the biography went straight into the narrative when it became relevant, as if it already existed and wasn't being written to plug a hole. It was almost magical.
I don't know why I can't make myself set the alarm and wake up and do this every time. It's so good for me.
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Liz Coley writes young adult novels and science fiction/fantasy short stories for anthologies and magazines.
Her novel Pretty Girl-13 from HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books will be debuting in March, 2013 in the US and abroad. Now available for pre-order on Amazon and Amazon UK.
There are secrets you can't even tell yourself.
For more about Liz and her work, visit lizcoley.com and LCTeen.com or follow her on Twitter at LizColeyBooks and like her Facebook page.