On making a character live … the inside story

Authors are funny animals. We inhabit storybook worlds; and sometimes reside in our characters’ heads. There’s nothing quite like the excitement of fictional characters coming to life. Adversity McAllister is someone you won’t know yet, but soon you will. She’s the young protagonist in my completed manuscript, SWEET ADVERSITYThe only child of travelling Shakespearean actors, 12-year-old Addie McAllister is feisty and loyal, funny, talented and at times opinionated, not a good thing when you live in an orphanage under Matron Maddock’s iron rule. She dreams of becoming a great actor one day – if she survives the dangers ahead.

Harold Cazneaux – Sydney 1930

When is the story set?

I set this story during the worst year of the Great Depression. Did you know that in 1930, Australia’s economy was much worse than in any other country in the developed world? Ordinary people suffered; children even more so.

Addie lives in the country where people could at least grow food. But then again, life in an orphanage in those days was bleak – especially one run by the likes of Matron Maddock. And that was all before Addie received the worst news of her life. And, before she fled for her life.

What sets this story apart from others?

There aren’t masses of children’s novels set in Australia’s Great Depression – so this fascinating, life-changing era is ripe and ready for young readers. Those Hard Times were filled with turmoil. Life in the cities was a daily fight over lumps of stale bread; for a homemade remedy to cure illness. Some children fled to live in children’s camps in the bush.

It was a time when unwanted children disappeared and nobody asked questions. Corrupt and unscrupulous people got away with their bad deeds, but there were brave souls who stood up for themselves and for others less able to … rather like Adversity McAllister.

With Shakespearean actors as parents, what else could Addie hope to become? She adores performing, whether in song or with the drama and language of the Bard’s plays – and even though her parents are gone, she continues to dream of what could be. One day.

1930-view-of-the-Sydney-Harbour-Bridge-under-constructionMain characters usually have ‘side-kicks’ – Frodo has Sam, Sherlock Holmes has Dr Watson, and Harry Potter has Hermione and Ron. Like in real life, these characters provide our main characters with more than just friendship.

Addie has a side-kick or two … one is Jack, her young friend at the orphanage; and then there’s Macbeth, a very talented cockatiel who becomes the catalyst forcing Addie to take up her dangerous quest; and to be there in the end when – in Shakespeare’s immortal words – even the most diminutive of birds will fight to the death if their young is threatened.


I was awarded a 2013 International SCBWI Work-of-Outstanding-Progress grant for this story, so I used the prize money to fly down to Canberra’s National Library and Archives to research for my story.  Of course, being the first non-American to win a SCBWI W.O.O.P. Grant was extra exciting! 

The National Library proved to be the BEST place to search for hidden stories of Australia’s Great Depression … to find out how it affected children. A bit of serendipity: someone ‘s recollection of pet birds learning to speak backed up what I have planned for Macbeth. Of course, he is different…he quotes Shakespeare, mostly in the right places.

williamson5Writing SWEET ADVERSITY has been like that famous line from Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It … Sweet are the uses of adversity… (check out the rest of the quote) So it has been for Addie, and for her creator – and the reason for the story’s title.

For Addie, facing adversity leads her into isolation and life-threatening danger, but it is tempered by the sweetness of friendship, loyalty, and just when she least expects it, her heart’s dream.

For me, adversity came with the uncountable drafts, rewrites and rejections for over 8 years – but it was worth trying to make it the best. This story is now all the better for surviving the fires of perseverance.

The right publisher will one day see its possibilities. And, like all stories that endure the blowtorch of a professional editorial team, it will be even better. Bring it on and let the TRUE edit begin!

UPDATE!!!!!  SWEET ADVERSITY will be published with the wonderful team under Lisa Berryman at HarperCollins Australia, in July 2018.

Check out the many wonderful characters that inhabit the work of Karen Brooks too.

3 thoughts on “On making a character live … the inside story

  1. Thanks, Neridah. It certainly is a fascinating era – especially travelling ‘the long paddock’. That must’ve been quite an experience. Hot, dusty, thirsty, hard work! Hydatis from a dog! Have to now google hydatis. 🙂


  2. Hi Sheryl,
    Great post on “Bringing a character alive ” – well thought out.
    I wish your novel every success!
    Karen Tyrrell


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.