Writing Real Characters Into Fiction

12th July 2023
3 min read
22nd January 2024

In this compelling new extract from the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2024, Elle McNicoll explores what is meant by describing fictional characters as ‘real’.

Children's Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2024

Every story, no matter the trimmings, asks: ‘What am I? Who am I when the light goes out?’ A checklist or a cheat sheet cannot accomplish this kind of portrayal, and it will not connect with the reader. An expert on birds will never truly know what it feels like to fly. So, what is your truth as an author? Not your past, not your biography, but your truth? The truth is not synonymous with fact when it comes to storytelling.

So I’ll ask again: What is your truth? What do you know to be true? Or believe to be true? What is your point of view? I could have written a novel containing the facts of my life. I could have written a memoir disguised as a children’s story. Instead, I plucked a hidden, painful handful of truth dust from my ribs and scattered it onto the page, alongside plenty of imagination. Readers are archaeologists. They can always find and connect with the truth and the ‘real’ parts … if they’re really looking. I wrote about a young witch who could see through the supernatural veil of an ancient city, but what made her real to people was her struggle in school. Her stubbornness. Her pride. Her learning difficulty and her refusal to let people shame her for it. The truth, as I know it.

You can write about the most magical, the most impossible. In children’s fiction, there is no impossible. But if you want people to connect with your fiction, add a little of your truth. And again – remember that the truth, in stories, is not objective. I write books where children who have been historically oppressed and miscounted are the heroines: I know that can be true. I write about characters who learn about their own prejudice and prove in their actions that people can change and grow and make the world a more encouraging place: I know that will be true.

I write about worlds that can be changed by these incredible children and the courage they inspire in others. I write about things that may not have happened but that, in telling them, I can reach through the pages and show young readers they are not alone, they can chart the course. They can decide the path. I can give them permission to be brave: I know that is true.

Elle McNicoll is a bestselling and award-winning Scottish children’s author, currently living in North London. Her debut novel, A Kind of Spark (Knights Of 2020) won the Blue Peter Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her second novel, Show Us Who You Are (Knights Of 2021) was one of The Bookseller’s Best Books of 2021. Her third book, Like a Charm, was published in 2022 and its sequel, Like a Curse, in February 2023. Elle is also co-writer for the A Kind of Spark CBBC series. Neurodivergent herself, Elle is an advocate for better representation of neurodiversity and disability in publishing and the media; she founded the Adrien Prize, to recognise children’s fiction that explores the disability experience. For more information see https://ellemcnicoll.com.

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