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Molding Her Stories

Dec 31, 2012

Writer Andrea Cheng compares writing stories to working with clay—“You shape, mold, add, and subtract until it works.” One way she shaped her main character, Chinese-American fourth-grader Anna Wang in The Year of the Book, was to use her real-life daughter, Jane, as a model. “When I create characters, they usually start out based on someone I know, but then they take on a life of their own,” she explains.

“As I wrote the story, Anna became her own person,” Andrea says. Anna’s a bit of an outsider, and becomes even more of one when her best friend, Laura, starts hanging out with a mean girl named Allison. Anna says that she doesn’t want to “go to the fourth-grade playground where Laura and Allison stand so close that there’s no space left for me.” Besides, Anna would rather be home reading. But books can’t tell Anna how to find a true friend or what it means to be one. She’ll have to discover that on her own.

To help young writers create a character like Anna, Andrea suggests starting with someone you know. Then, she says, “List the ways in which your character and the real character are similar. List the ways in which they are different. Put your character into a situation and watch your story take shape!”

Andrea also advises observing the people around you. “Notice the sounds of their voices and the words they use; watch the way their faces change when they are happy, scared, concerned; observe the way they walk, stand, run. Then write these characters as you see them. Stories come from characters, and you create characters through observation.”

Find out more about Andrea’s books, the many languages she speaks, and how she comes up with her story ideas on The Studio.