Creating Compelling Characters and Writing Dual Narratives

I read an amazing book recently. It’s called Sick Bay and it’s a middle grade contemporary novel by Australian author, Nova Weetman. Sick Bay was published by UQP in June this year.  When  you  read  this  book  you  feel  like  the  characters  are  real  people  telling  you  their  story.

Meg uses Sick Bay to hide from other kids. She’s struggling with changes at home, wears slippers to school and buries her head in books.

New girl Riley is a type 1 diabetic with an over-protective mother. She’d rather chat with her friends than go to Sick Bay, but sometimes she has no choice.

They think they’ve worked each other out, but what if they’ve got it all wrong?

On the brink of high school, Meg and Riley need a place where they can find the courage to be themselves.

ABOUT NOVA

From Nova’s website: – I write books, as well as articles, tv shows and the odd shopping list. I eat a lot of chocolate when I’m writing. And spend way too much time hanging out in op shops trying to find a bargain, or looking through old recipes for something yummy to cook. I think they call it procrastination.

Apart from Sick Bay, Nova’s books include Every Thing is Changed, The Secrets We Keep, The Secrets We Share, Frankie and Joely, The Haunting of Lily Frost, and the Choose Ever After series.

DUAL NARRATIVE AND CHARACTERS THAT HOOK YOU IN

One of the most remarkable things about Sick Bay is that it’s written from two points of view and the characters are so well crafted that there is never any confusion about who’s ‘talking’ or whose part of the story we’re reading. We care deeply about both Meg and Riley right from the start.

Voice is such a difficult thing to master and Nova does it with two characters in the same book. Sick Bay reads as if Nova knows Meg and Riley as well as she knows her own children.

To me, knowing your characters is the secret to making them engaging and to ensure that they stand out from each other. Right from the start, the reader needs to feel as if they know these people. They need to see the character’s vulnerabilities and find them interesting. The reader needs to care about what happens to the character/s, to be so invested in their journey that they will follow it right to the end of the book.

Without telling or using info dumps, Nova hooks us into her characters and their lives straight away. It’s in the small detail, the things that make Meg and Riley unique. Here’s what I mean. In the first two chapters of Sick Bay, this is what we find out about each of the characters … and all this through their actions, thoughts and interactions:

MEG

  1. Doesn’t have many friends – best friend is a paper bag – sets her apart from other girl’s her age … establishes straight away that she’s dealing with something difficult.
  2. This is not the first paper bag she has used so we know this is an ongoing situation
  3. Attachment to bags and unwillingness to throw them out … she is looking for someone or something to love.
  4. Used to have a best friend who ditched her for ‘normal’ friends … makes us wonder what’s wrong with Meg. What happened to the friendship? Why did it break down?
  5. We are already feeling sympathy for Meg because she has a problem and has been abandoned by her best friend – but she is funny and eloquent  and lacking self-pity
  6. Spends a lot of time in sick bay and teachers let her so they must know something about her that makes them feel empathy for her.
  7. Office lady Sarah feeds her … so either she is poor or she has an eating disorder.
  8. No mention of parents but the teachers seem to have a protective attitude towards her so the reader wonders what the story of her family life is.
  9. Sick Bay is far from a hotel room so there must be some reason Meg she likes to hang out there instead of the classroom or the schoolyard.
  10. Meg spends a lot of time there but doesn’t appear to actually be sick.
  11. She is wearing her slippers to school, but we know that it’s not by choice.
  12. Usually brings her book to sick bay so we know she reads a lot.
  13. Meets Riley who actually appears to be sick.
  14. When Riley asks what she’s doing here, Meg jokes to cover up … defence mechanism.
  15. Meg is clearly very hungry.
  16. Meg wonders what is wrong with Riley.
  17. Meg Quotes things from books.
  18. She is the best writer in grade 6

Already Meg has many unique characteristics and habits that make her stand out.

RILEY

  1. Has some illness requiring regular testing, but we don’t yet know what it is.
  2. A boy has a crush on her but she doesn’t reciprocate so she has enough self-awareness and confidence not to be influenced in by it. In fact she hates the assumption that she should be flattered by the unwanted attention.
  3. Riley carries an insulin pump around her waist and is self-conscious about. So we realise she’s diabetic, but there are clues planted before this is stated.
  4. Trying to concentrate on teacher but her friend Lina wants to talk about boys. So Riley appears to be more interested in school than her friends.
  5. Her friends are made about boys but she’s not interested in them.
  6. She is not conventional either … that’s something she has in common with Meg.
  7. Likes the year coordinator so doesn’t see teachers as the enemy … another thing in common with Meg.
  8. She is asked to make a speech at graduation and wonders why she was chosen … very aware of people picking her for things because she’s diabetic.
  9. Has only been at the school for a year.
  10. Doesn’t understand why such a big deal is being made of grade 6 graduation.
  11. Tells teacher she is fine about moving on to high school but really she’s petrified. So she isn’t always honest about what she’s feeling.
  12. She is going to public high school but friends are going to private one. She doesn’t seem upset about this. Hint that friendships aren’t perfect.
  13. Parents are big part of Riley’s life – strict/protective – focus on bedtime and carb count. Contrast to Meg’s who aren’t mentioned
  14. Has diabetes and hates having to explain about it all the time.
  15. Meg has been asked to make graduation speech too. Riley sees that Meg is even more suspicious about why she has been asked to make a speech.
  16. Riley wonders what’s in Meg’s brown bag.
  17. Riley likes Meg’s honesty about not wanting to make the speech.
  18. Riley is in a friendship group of four. She lies to her friends about her diabetes so perhaps they’re not true friends.
  19. She is supposed to check her blood glucose levels before she eats but doesn’t always do it.
  20. Doesn’t like being in the sick bay.
  21. Doesn’t like doing tests in front of her friends.
  22. Self-conscious about diabetes and people judging her for it.
  23. Hates friends treating her as if she is one of their patients.
  24. Riley’s diabetes is life threatening.
  25. Mum is a psychologist
  26. Riley thinks of her body in two halves – body bits that are tested, bits that aren’t – bits that are normal. Indicates that what she wants most is to be normal.

Riley is part of the ‘cool crowd’ but has her own issues too.

TIPS FOR CREATING CHARACTERS THAT STAND OUT

  1. To create an engaging character you need to know them as well as if they were a real person.
  2. To connect with readers straight away, your character needs to be  vulnerable and yet speak with some authority – they must have credibility for the reader.
  3. It’s the small detail that makes a character unique and tells us about their internal and external conflicts. For example, Meg wearing slippers to school. This is something physically memorable about her but it also hints at internal and external conflicts. Something is not quite right in her life. Twelve year-old kids don’t normally wear slippers to school.
  4. Look for differences and similarities with your characters. Common ground is what forms friendships and relationships. Differences cause conflict.
  5. What does your character need and want … think of needs that might be unique to them? Specifics will make your character stand out.
  6. To create a dual narrative that works, your characters have to stand out. With Meg and Riley, they stand apart from each other because of their needs, their characteristics, their life circumstances, their family backgrounds, their view of the world.

If you’re thinking of writing a dual narrative contemporary MG fiction, I highly recommend you read Sick Bay.

Feel free to share other books you’ve read that have helped you hone your writing craft.

Happy writing 🙂

Dee