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Saturday, May 16

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Creating Sympathetic Characters

Critique By Maria D'Marco

WIP Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through June 20.

This week’s questions:

1. Is it a sympathetic character?

2. Does she sound like a twelve-year-old?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: This scene is from the first chapter of my WIP. The character is an immigrant from Belarus.

I heard that one of them threw her best friend under the bus! Isn’t it, like, an attempted murder? Normally, I wouldn’t snitch, but what if next time she’ll bring a gun to school? (fun fact: 113 people have been killed or injured in school shootings in America last year I wonder if my mama realized how dangerous it was to be a six grader in New York.) When I told my math teacher about it she laughed. Laughed! Poor thing. I guess you can’t outgrow stupidity.

Speaking of stupidity, these intellectually gifted delinquents were calling me anything but Kseniya: Xena, Xenia, Zenia, Zina, Ksen, Nia… It was so pathetic that I reluctantly gave them permission to call me Ksyusha. It’s a diminutive of Kseniya—that’s how my friends used to call me in Minsk. (By the way, if you are a fan of the TV show Friends, we must clear something out before I continue: Minsk is not in Russia! It’s the capital city of Belarus; and no, it’s not the same difference. At all.)

Anyways. Guess what.

My stupid classmates started calling me Shusha instead of Ksyusha. Then, Susha. And after a lunch break—Sushi. It stuck. Sushi! I can’t even—

I am Kseniya Levashonok! Kse-ni-ya. Ksyu-sha.

Not a roll of rice with raw fish!

Speaking of fish, did you know that one of the Founding Fathers said that visitors stink? It was Benjamin Franklin and his exact words were: fish and visitors stink after three days. End quote. The point is Americans just don’t like foreigners that much. Tourists leave. Immigrants stay. So they hate us even more.

My Thoughts in Blue:

I heard that one of them [who is ‘them’?] threw her best friend under the bus! Isn’t it, like, an attempted murder? Normally, I wouldn’t snitch, [this is confusing – she heard something, so what can she ‘snitch’ about? Did she witness something else?] but what if next time she’ll bring a gun to school? (fun fact: 113 people have been killed or injured in school shootings in America last year. [I wanted to know what year this was – in the future??] I wonder if my mama realized how dangerous it was to be a six grader in New York.) When I told my math teacher about it [is ‘it’ the ‘fun fact’? Why tell this teacher?] she laughed. Laughed! Poor thing. I guess you can’t outgrow stupidity. [by now, the dark view of this character has me wondering what has happened to her/him]

Speaking of stupidity, these intellectually gifted delinquents [is this a truth or a smear? Is this he/she gifted?] were calling me anything but Kseniya: Xena, Xenia, Zenia, Zina, Ksen, Nia… It was so pathetic that I reluctantly gave them permission to call me Ksyusha. It’s a diminutive [nickname might be more familiar to MG readers] of Kseniya—that’s how my friends used to call me in Minsk. [this pricked my interest & I hope we learn more of her life there] (By the way, if you are a fan of the TV show Friends, we must clear something out before I continue: [this aside makes sense to me, as an adult who knows the reference, but will MG readers get it?] Minsk is not in Russia! It’s the capital city of Belarus; and no, it’s not the same difference. At all.)

Anyways. Guess what.

My stupid classmates started calling me Shusha instead of Ksyusha. Then, Susha. And after a lunch break—Sushi. It stuck. Sushi! I can’t even—

I am Kseniya Levashonok! Kse-ni-ya. Ksyu-sha.

Not a roll of rice with raw fish! [this made me laugh]

Speaking of fish, did you know that one of the Founding Fathers said that visitors stink? It was Benjamin Franklin and his exact words were: fish and visitors stink after three days. End quote. The point is Americans just don’t like foreigners that much. Tourists leave. Immigrants stay. So, they hate us even more. [such a dark, disturbing extrapolation]

The Questions:

1. Is it a sympathetic character?


Readers chime in here, as I would love to hear other takes on this question…

After my first and second, then third and fourth read-throughs, trying to glean feelings of sympathy for this character, I decided I couldn’t decide. First impressions stick – with people we meet – and with characters we meet. 

My first impression was that this character was self-absorbed, judgmental, opinionated, not very happy, and possibly afraid. The last two are a bit of speculation. No matter though, as the result (even the repeated attempts to sympathize) was that her personality didn’t draw me in, make me relate to her, or give me much room to do more than, perhaps, commiserate with the idea that other students refused to say her name properly. I can relate to that. I am often called Mary or Marie or even Marcy! People tend to use the name form that fits their experience, so if no one has any experience with a name using the phonetic “ks”, they will do what they can.

This is such a white space scene that I want more information simply to enrich my understanding of what is happening.

It also crossed my mind that this character might have her ‘shields’ up pretty tightly, being in a new school that was not just a few state-lines from her last school, but several country borders and big spans of salt water. Her judgmental view could simply be a defense while she adjusts.

I also considered the phrase ‘intellectually gifted delinquents’ as a possible hint about her school situation. Perhaps she’s gifted as well? The school is in New York. She’s in the 6th grade. Her mother may have concerns about her daughter’s safety, here in this huge city filled with strangers. And considering the aside about school shootings, it appears that this character already has some concerns about her safety.

What I’m reaching for here is the idea that if I make a concerted effort to read and speculate about all that might be behind this character’s behavior and ‘self-talk’, as I would with an adult character in an adult novel, then I can make a case for seeing reasons to have sympathy for her. But! I’ve had to work to put the pieces together. Again, this is perfectly fine for an adult or even YA novel, but I’m unsure if a middle grade reader will immediately have sympathy for her. Like I said before, the whole name mispronunciation thing is easy to relate to if you’re twelve – or older.

(Here's more on How Shame and Vulnerability Can Connect Us to Characters)

2. Does she sound like a twelve-year-old?

Sort of… (again, readers thoughts?) Part of my hesitation here is borne of having no immediate 12-year-old kid contacts. I cheated and spoke with an old friend with a blended family (race, culture, divorce, immigrants) who does have this level of contact, regularly, like trapped in the same house, pandemic, contact. She confirmed my curiosity concerning the complexity of thought and word use, and agreed that a gifted 12-year-old might well experiment with very strong feelings/opinions (school shootings/Americans hate foreigners) while being upset about her name, her main identifier of self.

So. To me, she doesn’t sound like a 12-year-old. I keep pushing her toward 14. Being past the point of childhood, and only reverting to it if a situation was dire.

If I view her as a strong-willed, possibly only child, intellectually gifted girl, then I can begin to envision her as being twelve. Make sense? This can also factor into the sympathy angle…if she’s 12-going-on-14/15…and she’s intellectually advanced, she’s probably also constantly struggling to fit in.

This is kind of the fish-out-of-water thing, where someone is in conflict because of changes in their life, new home, new school, lost friends and maybe extended family. Readers will relate to being the stranger. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough here for readers to make solid choices or decisions about just how disturbing things are for her. Except the whole name thing, of course.

The ragging about people mistreating her name and reducing it to a rolled-up piece of raw fish, to me, has 12-year-old all over it.

If I parse out the first paragraph, I can also lean toward that age because of the exaggeration. She hears about something, defines it as attempted murder, then projects the potential of deadly force as the anticipated next step.

There is a lot to think about with this opening, and I liked the little hints tucked into the material that can stimulate speculation. I would like to say that this is material that would allow more than one level of understanding, depending on the reader; however, the first line doesn’t go on to be more grounded, so readers are left hanging. The narrative position, I believe, wants to be intimate, but the reader is only allowed to be an audience, not a participant. With some outside-the-head observations or acknowledgements the character can become more real. With some less-abstract hints about the character’s circumstances, readers will be able to begin bonding. 

(Here's more on How to Write With a Teen Voice)

There is much potential here. A strong character with strong ideas and struggling with controlling her identity. There are obstacles, but we haven’t learned about the deeper problems she might be facing, has faced or will face – or goals and allies. I would look forward to learning more, reading on – good start!

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

10 comments:

  1. Thank you very much for the feedback, Ms. D'Marco! It's very helpful and thought-provoking! Words fail me. Thank you!

    I just wanted to clarify that this isn't the opening scene - I chose to submit a scene from the middle of my first chapter. So it's a bit out of context, I suppose. Also, I wasn't sure if it's clear that MC doesn't understand that "throwing someone under the bus" is just an idiomatic phrase. Her classmate simply betrayed her best friend.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Alina...
      I'm so glad you clarified that this was not the opening! Knowing that would have altered my focus in considering feedback. For the purposes of this critique venue, I assume the material submitted is the opening 250 words, unless the author states otherwise. Also, when the submission is from the body of the book, the submitting author will provide the framing or foundational information that allows me to review the material in the proper context. No harm done, I hope...

      I appreciate you providing the actual opening in your added comment below, which elicited a grin when I read it. :o)

      The character still reads a little older, or that is my impression. I think this is more from the sophistication, the dry humor, which I have trouble attributing to a 12-year-old. However, this doesn't mean there aren't 12-year-old readers who would relate to her attitude.

      Your opening immediately engaged me, made me grin, and made me want to know more about this spirited protagonist. I may not easily consider her as a 12-year-old, but I do get the feeling that she's a kid with gumption and intellect. I want to know more about her.

      Keep at this story and be encouraged -- your premise is flexible and offers both danger and humor. The immediate and consistent opportunity for conflict, combined with a sharp sense of humor (which may have always been a part of her, or could have developed in the midst of her current plight) used as a shield against her fear, creates a lively mix that I believe readers will enjoy.

      I'm anxious to see more of this -- or to find it on the virtual shelves soon. Good luck!

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    2. Thank you very much, Ms. D'Marco! I really appreciate your kind words. Your critique was spot on and you understood what I tried to convey even though the scene above was totally out of context. Your words inspire me to keep writing and revising! Thank you so much for your time and notes. It's incredibly helpful.

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  2. A great premise, in general.I am interested to know more. For sympathy, I can feel her situation, but her bitterness and judgment take away from it somewhat. Some dialogue from the name teasing, then showing her hurting might add sympathy. I don't relate with 12 year olds, but I would think her thoughts fighting back, even about Franklin, would sound more like teenage angst. Good job.

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  3. This character seemed a bit mean to me, and if a reader feels that way it may be hard to invoke sympathy. She might find herself being teased, but after calling her teacher stupid and these bullies delinquents she appears to be equally rough. I think of Harry Potter - where we find Harry sympathetic because he tries to fit into his Aunt's and Uncle's and even though they are so mean to him, he never responds with meanness back. That evokes sympathy. We root for Harry to get out of there because we see he is a nice kid, being treated poorly.

    As far as the twelve year old voice - given it's NYC, where I live, yes kids grow up faster and tougher. However, your audience of readers come from all over and this might seem too harsh for a 12 year old. Remember that readers typically read "up" a few years, so it might be 8-10 year olds reading this. That might prove a challenge for subject matter.

    If you made the character older (YA), you have a lot to work with and many avenues where you can go. Yet, no matter what age, the reader must connect with your protagonist. I like the saying I heard once, what shows a character is what the protagonist does, not what he/she says.

    You have the basis of a good, compelling story and there is a need for (and agents are looking for) voices of ethnicity. With a little work, you can create a story that readers will want to follow and a character they will root for. Good luck!

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  4. Keep going. This is good. I think books are like first impressions, black or white, but a trace of mystery. This piece is a mystery. Creative and depressing, but interesting enough to continue. The character is the character you see. These critiques often try hard to impress with their knowledge, and they do have lots of helpful information, but the average reader likes a good story, and will give you some time to advance your story. It feels emotionally true, even though I have no knowledge or remembrance of these struggles. lol. Best of luck.

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  5. Is this really the way you want to open the story?

    Opening scenes and lines are the most important space in a book, bar none. Yes, beginning with a sense of the character is one way to do it, especially with middle grade. Still, you want to choose her opening thoughts so that they hint at the most important thing to know about her. So is your story really about school shootings, or maybe the angst of being a foreign kid here? is it about one of those in a more general sense, say feeling insecure or feeling like a misfit in general? If it is, good.

    But I don't think these subjects really hint at where the story's going. Having two "speaking of"s to change the subject draws all the more attention to its lack of focus. It could be her lack of focus or some combined effect from the subjects *is* the point, but that's especially difficult to pull off, and it works best when you don't let us get as far into a subject before it's abandoned. Yes, her foreignness and/or the idea of danger could be great places to open this story. But as it is, it's hard to notice much except the lack of focus. (And if the actual first line, about a person thrown under a bus, turns out to be key, it's just that buried under all the rest.)

    You ask if the character's sympathetic. I'd say not yet: you show her as clashing with people over her name, but she seems so eloquent and quick to shoot back about it she almost seems happy to have something to fight over. Lynne makes a great point about Harry Potter: putting attention on what the character's actually suffering is a classic way to build sympathy, and it doesn't have to be a lifetime stuffed in a cupboard if you just make us appreciate it. Other ways to build sympathy are the character showing her competence (Kseniya knows news statistics and quotes Franklin, but for her they just seem to be things to argue over), or better yet helping someone else. The impression we get here is a girl who's a misfit more because she drives people away than because of her actual reasons, and she's not doing much to counterbalance that impression.

    Kseniya has her guard up constantly... but we see the guard more than whatever pain makes her do it, and we don't see much else about her. If you want to win us over, I'd like to see more of that, even in the first page and underneath the attitude.

    You do her attitude very well. But you don't want to open the page with *only* her attitude.

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  6. Thank you for all the comments, but I would like to repeat: this isn't the opening scene. It's taken from the middle of the first chapter. My actual opening is this:

    "For the record, it’s not my fault I got mistaken for an alien.

    But now the agents of a secret organization that hides alien activities on planet Earth are after me. The worst part? They want to wipe my mind. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. All you need to know is that my mama started it. Look, my life was perfectly normal until she won the US Green Card Lottery.

    She followed her dreams. I followed her.
    (It’s not like I had much of a choice.)"

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  8. I like this voice and this character, which does not exactly sound, at least to me, as the same character submitted. In this opening we have a mystery and the hint of a sci-fi book, which is very interesting and makes me want to read more. Also, the character's voice sounds more like the 12 year old you are going for. Perhaps examining the tone of the opening to see if you are carrying that same voice and character into the rest of the chapter might help.

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