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Friday, November 15, 2013

Author Anne Ursu: Characters, Writing, and Voice in Middle Grade Literature

How do successful authors go about developing their characters? 

As writers, we are in a (privileged and somewhat daunting) position of being able to touch readers with our stories~ to have them find connections and parallels to their own lives within the pages of a book. To have them be inspired by characters who are real and flawed and frightened and brave, who face the dark and scary things in life, not without fear, but in spite of it. Characters who feel things, and think things. Characters who you'd like to hold hands with and bundle into your backpack to take with you for courage when facing your own challenges.

I'm absolutely thrilled to have Anne Ursu on the blog to talk about character development in middle grade literature. In addition to her novels for adults (Spilling Clarence, The Disapparition of James), Anne has written the middle grade books The Cronus Chronicles (a trilogy), Breadcrumbs, and The Real Boy. All of her MG books have characters who have stayed in my mind and heart long after I've turned the final pages. Anne teaches at Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and lives in Minneapolis with her son and cats.

If you don't already own a copy of The Real Boy (beautifully illustrated by Erin McGuire), leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a hardcover. It is a very special book. And now, here's Anne:

How has your writing process evolved from The Cronus Chronicles to The Real Boy?

Breadcrumbs drawing: Erin McGuire
I wish I could say that I’ve really refined my process over these five books, learned from my mistakes and grown each time. But it’s always the same: I start with an idea, take some scattered notes, and then just plunge into the deep end. It usually occurs to me a couple of chapters in that I have no idea what I’m doing, and then I start snacking a lot to mask my despair.

I suppose the thing I have learned is that the fear is okay. I’m always terrified—but I’ve realized there’s no point in knowing how to write a book you already know how to write. You learn how to write a book by writing the book, that’s all. This doesn’t make it any easier when you’re staring down an endless tunnel with only the sputtering light of your own ignorance to guide you, of course.

Once you have a character in mind and a situation to challenge him/her with, how do you go about developing that character?

From The Real Boy
As you may have guessed from the above, I’m a very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. It’s more intuition than planning for me—I just start the book with a feel for the character and see what happens. I tend not to worry too much about what a character would or wouldn’t do, at least during the first draft—if they are doing it, then they would do it.

So, for example, with Hazel in Breadcrumbs, I was thinking of a comment a friend got on a report card in elementary school—“She’s doing better but she still stares out of the window and appears stupid.” That summed up the whole character to me; she had a strong imagination but no one really appreciated it. And then I just started writing, and everything unfolded.

You learn a bunch about your character by the end of the book, and usually most of my rewriting happens at the beginning.  Also, I seem to have a tendency in my first drafts to make my characters, in my editor’s words, more pitiable than sympathetic. So that requires a little bit of attention.

Agents and editors have said that the middle grade voice is one of the hardest to write. What advice would you give a middle grade writer who has plenty of plot ideas, but struggles to find their characters' authentic voice?

From The Real Boy
Read. Read out loud, and listen to audio books. Take apart the books you like—what elements make up the voice? How did this author create the sound of the character?

We treat voice like an abstract concept, but it’s just the expression of character on the page. How does your character talk? What kind of analogies might she use—what are her interests and preoccupations? How self-reflective is she? What’s her sense of humor like? What are her favorite words? Does she exaggerate? How do her emotions affect her voice? 

Sometimes I have students write bits of journal entries from their protagonist. It sounds cheesy, but every time I’ve done it the student captures something essential. It’s just a great way to get a feel for how your character really expresses herself, especially when she is living in a certain emotion.

In your opinion, what are three elements that should be part of any middle grade novel (i.e. action, humor, heart, ninjas, brownies, etc.)?

From Breadcrumbs
I want all my books to be summed up with the words “heart, ninjas, brownies.”

To me, middle-grade is entirely character-driven. I think one of the reasons that genre fiction is mainstream in books for young readers and not in books for adults is that kids and YA books have richer characters at the center of the story. The books still have a beating heart, someone to care about.

I can’t think of a middle grade book that doesn’t offer kids strength or hope somehow. I despise the idea that every middle grade book needs a perfect happily-ever-after ending, but I think you want the main character to have something from the experience of the book that’s changed her and you want to know she’s going to be all right.

And cats. There should be cats in every middle grade book. My prescription for middle grade success: Character, hope, cats.

What’s your favorite thing about teaching MFA courses in creative writing at Hamline University?

My program is a low-residency program in children’s book writing, and so most of the time I’m at home writing editorial letters on student work—we communicate by email. And then twice a year everyone in the program meets on campus for very intense ten-day residencies with workshops and seminars and lectures. I adore my job. When you go to residency, you realize everyone around you loves writing and children’s books and so “gets” you on that level—this is not an experience writers get very often. And no one asks you when you are going to start writing real books.  

I love the chance to be analytical about these books—as I said I tend to go by instinct and feel, but it turns out saying to students, “Oh, you know, you just…do it,” and flailing your arms around isn’t that helpful.

And so I’m learning along with the students, and the chance to dive deep into someone else’s writing helps your own grow by leaps and bounds. But my very favorite thing is watching someone’s writing transform in the program—they just find their spark. It’s amazing to watch.


A huge thanks to Anne for answering questions! Please leave a comment to be entered in The Real Boy giveaway (the winner will be announced next Friday). To find out more about Anne and her books, you can visit the following places:

Anne Ursu's Website

Anne Ursu on Twitter 

And here are two recent essays by Anne that you don't want to miss:

But What About the Children (an essay on how we talk about middle grade)

On Gender and Boys Read Panel


  1. What utterly fabulous advice and insight. Thank you, Ann, and Jess for the great questions!

    And I agree completely about MG and character. (Isn't Jess's Becky Thatcher one of the best ever? :) )

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  3. Great advice! Thanks for the great interview and insight into middle grade. And wow, I can't believe that comment on a student's report card...

  4. Loved Anne's advice. I write a fair amount as a panster so glad to see that it can work with character development.

  5. I adored Hazel in Breadcrumbs! Anne has such an amazing gift for characterization and I loved reading about her process. And thanks to Jess for asking the questions, and letting us all reap the rewards. Wonderful interview.

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  7. Loved this interview! As the mother of a child who named his Lego man Philonecron (from Cronus Chronicles) I definitely agree that her characters stay with the reader. I can't wait to read The Real Boy - I'm waiting on my library hold!

  8. What a great interview. I love the idea of wring a journal entry from your character - such a cool idea.

    (P.S. don't enter me for book, since I won Breadcrumbs already. :) And love it, by the way. )

  9. “heart, ninjas, brownies”

    I love MG novels because they are so stinkin creative. (Plus I can read them OUT LOUD with my kids.) I once heard a prolific MG author say you can't write for them if you don't remember what it's like to be a kid. Some of us never grow up, eh?

  10. Sounds like a wonderful MFA program. Thanks for this interview!

  11. I loved Anne's interview - she's so funny! I tried pantsing once, and it wasn't pretty. Kudos to anyone who can do it and especially as successfully as Anne. Have a great weekend! :-)

  12. I loved, loved this interview.
    I didn't know about Anne Ursu until Breadcrumbs came out and now any book with her name on it makes me go "I want!!!".
    Thank you for a chance at winning The Real Boy.

  13. I enjoyed the interview! And yes to heart, ninjas and brownies!

  14. That's such a great point about how much more fleshed out kid and YA characters are compared to adult characters. I no longer read MG and YA just for the research, but because I honestly prefer Kid Lit.

    Thanks, Jess!

  15. Lovely interview with tons of good tips, especially the journal one. Sounds like exactly what I needed for a certain character I have. Thanks!

  16. Can you please, please, please write another book in the cronus chronicles series? I love books about Greek Mythology and as soon as I found this series I literally stayed up until midnight reading them for almost a week straight! I've fallen in love with all of your characters, they're all so brave and inspiring. I hope I can look forward to more stories about Charlotte, Mew, and Zee. (Please bring back Jason too)