Writing Outside the Box

Having made the decision to write a middle grade novel starring a preteen boy, someone of the opposite sex and generation, I found myself falling into dangerous territory. You know—the territory marked with generalities. “Boys like to do such and such (play sports and videogames, speak one sentence for every eight a girl might utter). Therefore, I can make him do such and such.” This was simply because many of the boys I know (or knew awhile back) did those things.

Horror of horrors, I had written myself into a box. The result was a character as fake as snow in a can.


is not this.

How dumb, right? Generalities are not true of all; therefore, you can’t build a good character that way. Only by spending time with boys this age (and those older and younger) did the revelation hit: I needed to stop seeing this character as a stock character—as by-the-numbers as box cake mix—and see him as an individual whose heart and mind I could reveal. (And before you get ready to scream at me, I like many box cake mixes, particularly when someone else does the baking, and adds his or her own touches to make it special. But I digress.)

Case in point, I had to a pick a kid up from school a few times. Both parents were busy, so they asked me if I could pick him up and stay with him until one of them returned home. Now, many people who know this kid are of the belief that he barely talks. Not so. He talked for almost an hour about a Legend of Zelda game. I was the one who barely said a word other than, “Really? . . . Huh. . . . And then what?” He then segued to how much he loved creating music mixes using the software on his computer.

Link from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Other things I discovered: Yes, watching a Barbie video was torture for him, no matter how much his younger sister begged him. And no, he would rather not play baseball or football. Dodge ball? He was the king. Badminton and volleyball? Yup. You could sign him up.

I love this kid! Thanks to him, I felt encouraged to think outside of the box—to avoid relying on generalities—to make my character someone a reader might care about. Someone who seems real.


What do you do to go outside of the box as you develop a character? I would appreciate any tips you might have, especially if you’re writing about a character who is very different from you.

Link is from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild wiki. Duncan Hines cake mix found somewhere on the internet, thanks to bing.com. Other photos by L. Marie. The mini figures are My Mini MixieQs by Mattel. Carrying case also by Mattel.

32 thoughts on “Writing Outside the Box

  1. I don’t really know what answer I can give since I can’t think of specifics. Usually, the outside the box stuff ends up stemming from quirks and whimsical ideas that I come up with on the fly. I think I use a general base for most of my characters though.

    • Great tips, Jill. Since you write contemporary stories, it makes sense that you’d look at news stories. I need to do that more. I like to listen to music as well. 😊

  2. I have never needed to develop a character so I have no advice on that topic. I do however have to admit that I’m laughing here about people who think a certain kid is quiet. I’ve had that experience, too. I was told that my niece who was in 6th grade at the time talked very little. That is until she found me at the holiday dinner– and went on for about an hour about her troubles. Nonstop. 😉

  3. You illustrated perfectly how to create a “round” character, so you don’t need advice from me. Besides, I write memoir, not fiction, so it’s up to me to develop details about characters I already know.

    You don’t paint-by-numbers (Remember that craze?), so you won’t write that way either. Besides, you must have known the one question that would have gotten this boy to TALK. And then you LISTENED, probably without butting in. Brava, Marie!

  4. Gotta tell ya – the best times interacting with my son during the seemingly sullen and ‘quiet years’ were in the car driving to and from wherever…he’d gab and gab and gab…
    I love it that your boy-passenger likes to play sports in a way ***I*** can actually relate to – not the usual suspects, ya know?
    And…you’re so hands-on, L.Marie. Definitely not dependent upon ‘google searches’ for real life characters!
    One of my favorite things to do as an active research into characters and/or fodder for creative projects of any sort is to be a people watcher at sports events or coffeeshops or shopping malls or etc you get the idea. Being an active observer while hidden in the crowd offers up lots of discoveries! In the context of music, I hear phrases and rhythms and cadences in speech, ambient noises as pitches – well you get the idea.
    Oh and, I enjoy a good buttery, vanilla-y yellow cake with my homemade chocolate butter creme frosting. The cake itself can come from the box, it’s all about the homemade frosting IMHO!!!!!

    • Thank you, Laura, for the tips and kind words! So true about the frosting. A friend here dresses up the yellow cake mix with homemade chocolate frosting same as you. Yum!! 😋

      Isn’t it interesting how a car ride can be such a bonding time? I’ve had some interesting conversations with kids and Uber drivers. I also like listening to conversations, though I need to slow down more and pay attention. I’m usually racing through a store. And whenever I’m in a tea shop, I’m usually paying more attention to the friend I’m with than to the other customers. But the tea shop in town is a good place to people watch. 😁

  5. For me, believable characters (and plot lines) require “internal consistency” ~ I don’t mind suspending disbelief about whether or not something could/would happen (e.g., someone with Alzheimer’s taking off on a road trip with his terminally ill wife), but the characters in the midst of the action need to act in believable ways, consistent with how they’ve been portrayed to be:

    When watching a movie or reading a book, my mind is essentially asking one question:

    IF this really happened . . . is that the way X,Y, and Z would act?

    • Good point, Nancy. I’ve walked away in disgust from books, movies, and some episodes of shows when a character behaved inconsistently. I’m only willing to suspend disbelief to an extent. And while I like fantasy stories, I don’t like the “Oh it’s a fantasy” excuse as a way of explaining poor writing choices.

  6. I think pretty much every character I’ve “created” is based on someone I know, someone I’ve spent time with. That doesn’t mean he or she will be recognizable in the character; it just helps me to ground the character, give the character a foundation, rather than try and create someone anew. Hanging out with kids in the age group you’re writing about it probably the best thing you can do. Observe, pay attention to the details. I think Carrie Rubin once said that she had her (at the time) teenage sons read parts of her novel Eating Bull because her protagonist was about their age. That’s probably why none of my characters are kids … I have so few physically around me, I wouldn’t know where to begin 😉

    • Good point about giving a character a solid foundation, Marie. The kid I mentioned has been good for that. I also can’t help thinking about another boy I know who is less talkative unless Star Wars comes up. 😁

  7. Thinking of generalities and stereotypes-I think I’ve told you that we host students from around the world? All nationalities, and none conforming to the stereotypes we are often presented with.

    • Yes, I remembered that you have exchange students. And you frequent coffee shops. So at any given time, you’ve got plenty of fodder for a story or two, Andy. 😄 And how interesting (and lovely) that none of your students conforms to a stereotype.

  8. Hmm. This one’s a thinker. I like writing stories about relationship issues. I’ve taken quirks from people I know and people I’ve only known for a short time and mixed them into on personality.

    BTW, that kid sounds cute. Yeah, if you can find what a boy is interested in, you can’t get him to shut up. My nephews are all into gaming, and they don’t shut up about it. I have no idea what they’re talking about and usually daze-out. My nephews are the very age you’re targeting . . . three brothers with very distinct personalities. One of them is like a hyper terrier bouncing off the walls, athletic and into sports. One is more intellectual, observant and thinks things through. The oldest is an authority on everything.

    I know I’ve written TMI, but I can see what you mean about “cookie cutter” boy personality. My nephews are very different.

    • I love hearing about your nephews, Lori. I like the terrier description. 😁 My nephews are older, but still into gaming. My friends’ kids are younger, but into gaming, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings (still). I love hearing them go on and on about what they love.

  9. All the characters I’m writing now lived a long time ago. So while I draw from people I know today and my memories of growing up and my own kids, I watch a lot of films and read books (fiction and nonfiction) from that time period.

  10. I know what you mean. Without a spark, a character can be flat and ordinary, more ordinary than any real person is. Some characters come alive easily for me; others, not so much. Often for me, supporting characters are easier. Of course I use people I know or have heard about to give me idea.

    • I know what you mean, Nicki. A character needs that spark to keep you interested enough to tell his or her story. Guys are harder for me to write. This is why this book (the second in a series) is harder than the first (which has a girl as the protagonist). But I have to say, I appreciate having to work hard on this book.

  11. Hmmm . . . while I don’t develop characters, in part because I find it difficult to do, I do often spend time drawing outside the lines, looking outside of the box. I was a shy child who found her adventures in books – and in one special aunt, because she was the one who really listened to me. When our girls were young, especially middle school/early high school, I made it my job to be the one who drove them and their friends here and there. The car was like a box of of secrets and I held the key. 🙂 I would drive and remain silent, listening to their rambles. For each daughter, there was alway one friend who told me everything! Mostly girlish banter and crushes on boys. It was a treasure trove of what was going on.

    • How lovely that you were a listening ear to those girls, Penny. What a gift to them. I find it very precious that kids want to share their thoughts.

      I also had aunts and uncles who took time to listen to me when I was a kid. Neighbors too. And that was back when many adults had a “children should be seen and not heard” mentality. 😀

  12. The boy you picked at school, Linda, showed to you how much it is wrong in saying a boy can say only one sentence while a girl says eight! 🙂 Perhaps it is a quality to say the same thing in only one sentence !! 🙂
    Whatever this kid when he lost his shyness because he is in a confident situation speaks a lot and made interesting things . Perhaps you would have interest to be in relation with s few other boys for your book.
    Love ❤

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