Finding the Power in Quiet Books part 2

Our post by guest blogger Tracy Holczer continues today with part 2.

Part 2 – Making Characters Compelling

So we’ve talked about teachers who eat their own hair (a compelling bit of character detail, no?), digging deep, and weird-kid muck. Now on to some ideas on compelling and how to achieve that in your story when things aren’t blowing up every seven seconds.

Compelling is defined as “having great power or force or potency or effect.”  In fiction, I believe, this is achieved through DETAILS. To use Harry Potter as an example, JK Rowling has done an incredible job of world-building – we know every nook and cranny of her world from the color of the Hinkypunk’s smoke to the layout of Hagrid’s hut.

With character-driven fiction, we must world build the inner landscape of our characters with the same attention to detail.

I think Kate DiCamillo is a genius at this (and if you haven’t read Because of Winn Dixie and you are writing contemporary fiction, stop reading this blog post right now, go to the library and do not leave until you have read it). Here’s the first sentence from Winn Dixie:

“My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”

I don’t know about you, but this sentence completely grabs me by the shirt and yanks me in. Starting with “last summer” promises intimacy. Opal is about to reveal an important story from her past. Next, “the preacher” makes me want to know why she calls him this and hints it is a story that will take place in the south. Last are the specifics of the grocery list and the wonderful twist ending to the sentence – she came back with a dog instead of the tomatoes. This use of detail draws me into her world and the voice pops, which makes me willing to follow her anywhere. Plus, how can you resist a girl named India Opal Buloni?

Of course, not every sentence can be this jam-packed or we’d have to nap between chapters. But I learned along the way there should be at least two to three zingers on each page. These are the types of provocative sentences or imagery that keep the reader invested in the character and story. This is where your voice lives.

Voice is a huge component of contemporary fiction. Since there isn’t as much plot to rely on, the character almost has to do double duty. But voice alone won’t carry the story. There must be something at stake. All those voice-colored sentences must serve a purpose in getting your character from point A to point Z. So how do you figure out the A to Z part?

Tomorrow I’ll have some thoughts on building the story around your character, schlumping, and stakes.

Tracy Holczer lives in Southern California with her husband and 3 daughters, but has a deep love for the mountains where she grew up so she writes them into her stories. Her debut novel, THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY, will be published by Putnam in Spring 2014. Check out her website at