For Writers

In Writing About Characters, Are We Neglecting Relationships?

I’ve been thinking lately about how much craft and practice I’ve devoted to characters—their traits, their goals, and their development arcs—compared with how little I’ve ever pre-planned the relationships that tie these characters together. In my experience, fictional relationships seem always to arise organically from a given configuration of characters, setting, and plot, although there’s no reason to expect that this would always have to be the case.

What would happen, I’ve been wondering, if I created a set of relationships first and built the characters afterward? Could I plan a series of relationship arcs first and most importantly, and then build a plot to bring those relationships about? What would such a story look like if I set aside my character profiles and worked instead from a set of relationship profiles?

One result would be that things get complicated quickly. You can see why by drawing character dots and relationship lines to connect them. Two dots can be connected with one line, representing two people connected by a single relationship. But three lines are required to connect three dots, six lines to connect four dots, and ten lines to connect five dots. A story with even just a dozen characters would contain over sixty relationships among them!

Now, consider that each of these relationships is an entity that evolves and changes over time, and plays off of other relationships in the same way that characters play off of other characters. Friendships are strained. Romances blossom. Family dynamics turn this way and that. And each character is defined by multiple roles in an interactive social web that’s larger than the sum of its parts.

If that’s not enough to make your head spin, think of the null relationships, representing strangers. Every pair of characters who pass on the street will have second- or third-level social connections in common. A character on the bus is connected in some way or another with each of other passengers without even knowing it. But once we’ve mapped those connections, we can develop the scene in a more realistic manner.

Relationships exist at a higher level of abstraction. But I suspect that if a writer were able to work effectively at that level, the payoff would be a more emotionally satisfying story. Some authors may already do that, at least subconsciously. But if this were common practice, writing manuals, workshops, and teachers would focus more heavily on relationships rather than just on characters.

Or maybe a relationship-based story would be unwritable or, worse, unreadable. Maybe the better solution is a hybrid approach that sees in each character the effect of numerous relationships, and develops the more important relationships as characters in their own right, born in a first meeting, growing and maturing over time, and possibly dying through neglect or trauma.

If you write, do you focus primarily on characters or on relationships? If you teach writing, do you encourage your students to develop the relationships between their characters? Let me know in the comments!

The Five Different Types of Readers: What Authors and Educators Can Learn From them

As an author, I’ve found that it’s useful to understand different types of readers, so I can better understand for whom I might be writing my stories.

I’m going to offers up some definitions I created based on the work of literacy scholar Kylene Beers, who breaks readers into five distinct groups: Avid Readers, Dormant Readers, Uncommitted Readers, Unmotivated Readers and Unskilled Readers.

The Avid Reader—This is someone like myself and my older son Jonah. My husband has been known to pull the cereal boxes off the table to get us to eat. But that doesn’t stop Jonah and me. Oh no. We’ll happily read the back of any brand of orange juice carton. We are even known to flip over the napkin holder because it has interesting warnings in both Spanish and in English that it would be a bad idea to eat the napkin holder.

The Dormant Reader—This is a reader who might enjoy reading but doesn’t have time. In the case of a child, she or he might be overscheduled or it’s not the highest thing on their priority list of things-to-do. They’ve heard a certain book is good and think it’s cool and do want to get there. Eventually.

The Uncommitted Reader—This person feels ambivalent towards reading. They believe that someday they’ll read but that day isn’t quite today.

Unmotivated Reader—This reader never reads for pleasure and finds reading a big, fat ugly chore.

Unskilled Reader—This reader doesn’t yet have the skills to decode text.

These definitions have helped me to be understand reluctant readers and to climb out of my own experience.
I was one of those voracious readers, so I didn’t understand why everyone else was not like me.

Take my younger sister growing up. She really would be practicing her lacrosse goalie skills or watch TV or hanging with oodles of friends. But rarely ever reading.

I didn’t get her. And she didn’t get me.

I was that shy kid always playing pretend or reading books about girls from another century.

While I never bothered to try to coax my sister to pick up one of my thick novels, my mother never gave up on my sister as a reader. She bought her the Choose Your Own Adventure books, as well as read aloud to her quite a bit. When my sister got into music of the Doors, she bought a book on the band.

Today, my sister is a librarian and probably reads more than me. My mother understand that the unmotivated reader can become the uncommitted reader who then can become the avid reader.

So the lesson here is just because a kid is currently in one category, it doesn’t mean they will stay there. And it doesn’t mean that an avid reader will always stay there either. For example, I found that when my kids were babies my reading really dropped. I was lucky to have enough time to read the back of the cereal box. When it comes to reading status, things can be fluid. This can be true for authors in terms of their intended readers as well.

My recent middle grade novels, Apple Pie Promises and Pumpkin Spice Secrets, obviously target reluctant readers. However, the first titles in my new chapter book series, Ellie May on Presidents’ Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day are hybrids. I tried to write it for both the young avid reader and the uncommitted one. But I’m ever hopeful that the unmotivated reader will also be charmed by Ellie May’s personality and antics. Since I don’t write beginning readers, I can’t hope to hook an unskilled reader, except as a read aloud. And if it that were the case, I would be very happy indeed.

What sort of reader were you as a kid? Where are you now? Teachers, do you see a huge spread in your classrooms. And authors, whom do you write for?

Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She can be found at and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Celebrating Little Free Libraries and Their Founder

You’ve seen them, right? Little boxes on poles, filled with books, and standing in the most unexpected places.

Brunswick, ME has a Little Free Library down the street from the Brunswick Inn.

The Little Free Library movement began just nine years ago in Hudson, Wisconsin when founder Todd Bol crafted the first book box from an old door. Less than a decade later, there are more than 75, 000 Little Free Libraries in 88 countries.

Of course, Bol’s vision had everything to do with books and reading, but what many don’t know is that building a sense of community was Bol’s ultimate goal. Connecting people to books is one thing. Connecting people to people through books is what makes each Little Free Library so very special.

Ashlyn doesn’t wait to get home to start reading. The Little Free Library in Monroe, Indiana is one of her favorite places to visit.

Last week, Todd Bol died following a very brief illness. He leaves behind a successful non-profit organization that employs 13 people and has more than 75,000 volunteer stewards who maintain the Little Free Libraries around the world.  Author Miranda Paul and illustrator John Parra have been working on a picture book about Bol and his Little Free Library movement. The book is titled “Little Libraries, Big Heroes,” and will be released in 2019.

Listen to Miranda discuss the upcoming book and Bol’s legacy on NPR’s All Things Considered.


Little Free Libraries have sprouted up everywhere. They can be found in parks, neighborhoods, outside of businesses and on country roads. Authors Sherri Duskey Rinker and Jane Yolen have placed them in front of their homes.

One day, Sherri’s neighbor called and told her to grab her camera and look at what was happening outside. Sherri snapped this picture.

THIS is exactly what Todd Bol envisioned. Not book boxes on sticks. Hubs of community, sharing, reading, memory-making.


This Little Free Library stands outside the Exploration Station at Perry Farm Park in Bourbonnais, Illinois.


Recently, my daughter discovered a Little Free Library near her college campus in Illinois. On a rainy day, she placed copies of my books inside, snuggled next to Sharon Creech’s Heartbeat. Knowing that a young reader could wander by and find a story to enjoy there made my day.


The Little Free Library at Phoenix Farm, the home of author Jane Yolen.

At some time, I’d like to place a Little Free Library myself. I live on a sprawling, working farm, so my own property would only attract cattle and hogs. I will think of the perfect spot and I’ll carry on Todd Bol’s amazing legacy by signing up to become a Little Free Library steward. You can, as well, by clicking here.

Until then, I’ve resolved to keeping a box of books in my trunk. I won’t pass a Little Free Library without adding my contribution, in memory of and in celebration of Todd Bol.