The Voices in Your Head: A Look at How Characters Drive Stories with Marietta Zacker

By Leah Heilman Schanke
“Voice is easier to talk about than to execute,” said Marietta Zacker, Agent at Nancy Gallt Literary Agency. Books on writing say a story cannot be character-driven and plot-driven, but Zacker disagrees, “The magic comes when you have a character-driven story, and infuse a plot that works. The character is the main driving force but also reacting to events.”

So what’s the formula if there is one? Zacker reviewed 7 key elements of characters that will help writers get their manuscripts to the next level:

  1. Emotional Connection
  2. Empathy
  3. Memorable
  4. Adventurous
  5. Unique, but relatable
  6. Secrets and Aspirations
  7. Heart

Creating characters that are sympathetic is a more passive approach. Characters that make the reader feel create an emotional connection. It doesn’t matter what the feeling is as long as the character “stirs your soul.” With empathy, the reader is able to understand and share what the character is feeling.

Adventurous does not mean the character has to do something extreme or put oneself in grave danger. When characters have adventures beyond what happens in the plot, “there are all these moments that connect the reader to the story,” Zacker explained.

Characters need to have secrets and aspirations beyond the plot and have room to grow. Zacker emphasized, “Heart connects to everything else. If it’s missing, you lose the reader. In the character’s heart, who is he or she? What makes the character tick? It’s not just what they do.”

Zacker then reviewed things that can go wrong with characters in a segment titled: Watch Your Characters, They’re Sneaky. Seventy-five percent of the manuscripts Zacker receives are about adults trying to teach a lesson. All books teach something, but “let the perspective of the child’s voice shine through.” Writers should also avoid falling in love with the concept. A manuscript can become one big concept, and the characters are ignored.

Another problem is showing every part of the character’s insides instead of getting on with the story. To avoid indifferent characters, it helps to ask: Why is each character there? Illustrators need know how each character feels and how they would react to things.

Zacker was asked how she sees voice coming through in third person. While first person can sometimes be more effective, it’s not the only way to let a character’s voice shine through. YA is often told in first person POV because what matters to teenagers is their own perspective. Zacker has seen success in both the first person and third person.

Are agents looking for a first book that has a potential for a sequel? “It does not make a difference because publishers want the first book to sell,” Zacker informed the audience. “You need to worry about just one book.”


Leah Heilman Schanke was a finalist two consecutive years in 2014 and 2013 in the PNWA Literary Contest in the children’s book category. By day, Leah is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). Leah lives on Long Island with her husband and children.

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