Last Thursday writers packed One Story‘s home, the good Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, to hear editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti’s lecture on creating interesting, fictional characters using superheroes as models. Perhaps charged from seeing The Avengers or just passionate about fiction, the crowd was all ears and masks. This craft lecture was presented by One Story‘s Workshop for Writers, which will be held July 22nd to July 27th in Brooklyn. Along with daily workshops, and professional publishing panels, similar lectures will be held every day of the workshop, helping writers improve their work on the page with practical advice from talented authors and teachers.
Hannah began her lecture by revealing a personal trick she uses whenever a character she is writing feels flat: she opens a new page on her computer and starts listing facts about the character, using superheroes as her model. As an example, she reviewed the basics of everyone’s favorite superhero, Superman.
- Name: Superman.
- Costume: Red, yellow, and blue spandex with “S” logo and cape.
- Superpower: super strength, super hearing, super speed, flight, x-ray vision, heat vision, arctic breath.
- Weakness: Kryptonite.
- Backstory: He was placed on a rocket as an infant while his home planet of Kypton crumbled around him. Then he was found and raised by the Kents in Smallville, Kansas, where he developed and mastered his superpowers.
It’s the backstory, Hannah explained, where the most interesting information on your character is hiding. Superman is an orphan—the sole survivor of an entire planet. Batman’s parents were murdered in a back alley. Bruce Banner’s life was destroyed after he was exposed to gamma rays and started turning into The Hulk. Once you know a superhero’s backstory, they start to have more texture. It works the same for characters in fiction: by sketching out the basic elements as you would for a superhero, an author can translate crucial questions about the people they are trying to create on the page:
- What is the character’s name? (sometimes a name alone reveals a lot about a person).
- What does he look like (his costume)?
- What is he good at (his superpowers)?
- What are his weaknesses (emotional or plot-based)?
- What is his back story?
The final question Hannah asked is the most important and propels the character through the story: what does he want? This desire becomes his motivation, and fuels all of his actions and decisions. To give some examples of characters quickly and vividly established, Hannah turned to Charles Dickens. Magwich in Great Expectations provides a brief but deft example of how this information can be rendered on the page:
“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.”
With these lines, the reader not only gains a clear and frightful image of Magwich from the sound of his voice and the details of his appearance, but also learns his backstory as an escaped prisoner (without being explicitly told), and understands what he wants: freedom.
After looking at a few other Dickens characters, Hannah asked the crowd to don their masks. Then the audience created their own superhero, deciding a name, superpowers, weakness, and backstory for One Story managing editor Adina Talve-Goodman, who gamely donned some spandex, a cape, a mask and a shield. Her most impressive superpower? Smelling like lavender. (It must have been the purple tights.)
After fielding some great questions from the crowd, Hannah ended the night with this last piece of advice: “Love your characters—make them people you care about and like Pinocchio, they will come alive in the story.”
Events like this free craft lecture give One Story a chance to open our doors and extend our literary community. For this same reason, we invite you to apply to our third annual Workshop for Writers. We hope you will take advantage of this opportunity and join us this summer! Deadline to apply is May 31st. For complete details, go here.