Turning Pinocchios Into Real Characters


I thought I had nailed it. I’d turned my cast of characters from wooden automatons into unique and well-developed people. Then came my first-ever review. Kirkus? Publishers Weekly? I don't remember. I do remember glossing past positive, quotable phrases and on to the sucker-punch that criticized the book for lack of depth, secondary character-wise.

My kneejerk reaction: How could I have developed them any further? The main character just met them! The story spans only two days! 

After a bit of mourning or, maybe, a reality check that I wasn't as perfect as I'd hope to be, I did what has become (or maybe has always been) part of my nature. I was determined to learn from that comment. 

I'd like to say I did a deep dive into character study, but that's not the way I learn best. I did attend a couple workshops. I even developed one that I tried out with my friend's 4th-grade class. (Teaching is an amazing way to learn.) But my biggest aha moment came when I was stranded in a carpool line with a copy of a book I'd bought for my niece: Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting. I started reading the part where the acclaimed actress and acting teacher woke me to the fact that every secondary and tertiary character has a backstory, and you need to know it. 

I did know that, but it hit me that I hadn't put it into action deeply enough. 

I worked on developing backstories, ones you’ll probably never see. Instead, the plan was to use the effects of their experiences to deepen the actions and voices of these characters. With subtlety, though. (The last thing I ever want to do is stop the story to hit you over the head with full histories.)

Was it working? No clue. Though, subsequent reviews didn't slam me for lack of depth.

Fast forward to a few months ago. I had given my newest YA-thriller-in-progress to a trusted reader to have her answer one question: Had I built enough tension? Being so close to the story, it was hard for me to see.

She got back, essentially saying that it was 75% there, but my suspicions were right. I did need to amp up the pacing and the stakes. But then came the words I want to frame. "Your characters are fantastic! Each one is distinct, and that's so hard to do."

And I broke into a dance because, somehow, I did it. 

Jody Feldman just got that book past her toughest reader (her agent). She hopes her editor agrees. Stay tuned!


  1. Man, it can be hard to learn from reviews--but I always felt like it was part of the job to do EXACTLY what you describe.

  2. Great insight, telling lesser character's stories is a fascinating part of writing.


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