Monthly Archives: May 2010

Fun, Fun, Fun!

When I worked with my co-author, Susan Titus Osborn, to write our Parables in Action series of first chapter books, it took time for us to develop our cast of characters. We brainstormed a unique and enchanting character trait for each that would easily identify them from book to book in the series. Here is a list of the quirky and fun characters that we created:

Parables in Action series
Cast of Characters
Suzie:
This is the main character whose voice tells each story. She always prays when the situation gets sticky. Each story and each character is seen through her eyes.

Bubbles: This is Suzie’s best friend. Bubbles’ real name is Nan. She is a child actress on TV and appears in a different costume in each book because she is always practicing for her next new TV role.

Mario: Suzie’s friend, Mario likes to collect things. He’s very resourceful and comes up with all sorts of ways to raise money and fix problems.

Woof: Mario’s dog is named Woof. Woof is always running into a scene and barking, “WOOF!” at a key moment of the scene.

The Spy: He’s always writing spy notes in his spy notebook. The Spy’s real name is Larry. He always talks in secret code. For instance, “Iggle, iggle, snoogle, snoogle” means “yes.” When he says, “Ark, ark! Bam, bam!” he’s really saying, “Wow!”

Mr. Zinger: This is the classroom teacher of all the kids in this series. He has a beard, wears a baseball cap, plays the guitar, and sings with the kids. Mr. Zinger’s character traits are based on my husband, Jeff, who teaches fourth grade and plays guitar while singing with his students!

As you can see, characters in kids’ books can be over-the-top funtastic!

So go ahead—have loads and loads of fun! Create a super duper scrump-dilly-icious cast of characters for your own stories and you’ll have just as fun inventing them as kids will reading about them.

-contributed by Nancy I. Sanders

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Character Development and One Little Girl

Our Wordsmiths theme for this month has been Strategies for Character Development. The Wordie-Girls have given some wonderful insight and just about covered it all. I asked myself, what’s left for me to say? So, I thought I’d try something different. I’d like to tell you about what great character development meant to one little girl.

I recently asked myself this question—Why, as a young girl, did I love those characters? They were so different from each other and (so I thought) from me.

I’m thinking especially of two characters, Pippi Longstocking, and a Native American girl named Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins.

This is what I loved about Pippi Longstocking:
* She was daring, funny, and confident in the person that she was. Pippi loved her flaming-red braids. Her freckles were her glory. She was adventurous and free-spirited. Adults did not run her life and she did just fine on her own, in a crazy sort of way!  Pippi was whom I wanted to be like at that time in my life. I even drew big, brown freckles on my nose and cheeks with my mother’s eyebrow pencil!  My braids weren’t red but I made them stick out with bobby pins when I pretended to be the magical Pippi—a girl who accepted herself in all her uniqueness and made amazing things happen. I wanted to accept my own uniqueness. Pippi helped.

This is what I loved about Karana:
* She was incredibly courageous in spite of living in fear, and constant danger. Karana suffered horrible loss and yet she rose above it through her intense will to survive. She used her brainpower to be creative, and overcame enormous obstacles without an adult to help her. Karana discovered her own inner strength.  This character amazed me and made me want to be smart and creative. I especially longed to be courageous, even with an occasional bully in elementary school.  Karana helped me.

The authors of these books obviously had great strategies for character development, or little girls who grew up wouldn’t be talking about them today.

As I write my picture book manuscripts and magazine stories, I like to remember what drew me to characters I loved, as well as characters I enjoy in newer books for children.

Wouldn’t it be spectacular to know that a special character YOU created would be remembered and even loved by children for years to come? What if one of your characters helped a timid young reader dare to take steps toward being courageous? What if your character helped a self-conscious little freckle-faced, redheaded girl decide to love her hair and perfectly placed freckles? Silly characters. Serious characters. Everything-in-between characters. Just develop them so your reader  identifies, latches on, and doesn’t want to let go.

Sherri (one little girl)

Bring Out That Personality!

There are many different ways we can develop the characters in our stories,  and most of them have been mentioned in previous posts this month.  However, I have an additional strategy that works for me.  It involves giving a character a personality trait that makes him or her memorable to the reader.  This is especially true with the minor characters in our stories.

I first became aware of the need to do this when, a number of years ago, I was reading a middle-grades manuscript to a critique group I belonged to at the time. One of the members commented that Principal Sotelo sounded just like Mom who sounded a lot like Ms. Bradshaw, the teacher, and Mrs. Rutten, the next-door neighbor.  I quickly realized I had been concentrating so much on my two main characters (tween girls) that all my adults were one generic blob.  What to do? 

Our manner of speaking is the first thing people usually notice about us, so I knew I needed to get to work on making these characters sound distinct from one another.  Sometimes if a character likes to use a particular word frequently, this adds a special something to her or his persona.  But in addition, I decided to give each one a “little something extra,” rolling the eyes, a way of folding arms, maybe even a little nose twitch.

Going back and adding these personality quirks, or traits, would add spark to my main characters, too, I was sure.  Of course, we don’t want to overdo something like this.  Our stories then are in danger of becoming a set of clichés.  But main characters or minor, they can all benefit from the subtle inclusion of a mannerism or word pattern that will make a reader respond to their personalities and avidly turn the pages.

Marjorie Flathers

Creating the Multi-dimensional Character

From my forthcoming book, A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Fiction for Young Adults. E & E Publishing:

Most commercial fiction, including series stories, is plot driven.  This means that “the plot’s the thing!” Such books are often adventure stories — page turners — in which readers can hardly wait to find out what happens next. The protagonist is a character a few years older than the reader and usually has qualities the reader admires: curiosity, bravery, good looks, and the ability to get in and out of trouble without a scratch.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is character driver. This means that everything that happens hinges on who the character is. I don’t mean name and address. I’m talking about what goes on under the skin. The protagonist will operate on a deeper level than in commercial fiction, and the change that occurs in this character will include a loss of innocence that is directly related to coming of age.

In literary fiction, voice is crucial. Voice is more than the noise the vocal chords produce, though tone and inflection are part of the effect. Voice is the total value system of a character, delivered to the reader through narrative description, dialogue, dialect, interior monologue, outside observation, and action and reaction.

Not only must the main character have a strong voice, but important members of the supporting cast, as well as walk-ons, should be recognizable by physical description, action/reaction, and the way they put words together.

When I begin a middle grade or young adult novel, I create a cast of characters, using as many pages as I need to record information about each one. I start with their names (which often change as the book develops), then go on to vital statistics, their likes and dislikes, their desires. As they begin to take shape, so do the individual voices begin to emerge. If I have trouble with a particular voice, I ask that character to write something.. For example, when I was writing Straight Along a Crooked Road, Luanna wrote in a journal and told me how she felt about leaving her home in Vermont. Sometimes I interview characters by asking questions about things they like or dislike. Other times, I ask them to write blank verse telling what people think they are like, followed by what they believe they are like.

Developing characters is an adventure in which there are many surprises. I don’t like to be a stage director; instead, I like to put my characters on the stage and watch what they do next. That’s what makes fiction writing fun!

Dimension

Having great characters is key in any story. They need to be relate-able,  even if the reader reacts to them in anger, disgust, sympathy, or joy. But how does an author create great characters?

You need to make them dimensional. They need names, physical features, and personalities. They need to have some slight flaw since no one is perfect, and they need likes and dislikes, quirks and cares. These attributes make them real and believable. If your readers don’t believe in your characters, then your story, no matter how great, won’t work.

When I’m fleshing out a character, I’ll take a large index card or a piece of paper and start jotting down these things. Sometimes I’ll give him/her a catch phrase. Sometimes I’ll even sketch out a little picture so I can “see” the character. Writing these  profiles are very helpful, especially when your story has multiple characters. You can always check your notes to remind yourself of exactly who this person is.

Contributed by Catherine L. Osornio

Know Before You Draw

One tip that I have taken away from a writing workshop is that a character is defined by what she does. Too many times I have wanted to jump into illustrating the details of what a character is wearing or physical attributes before really understanding why or how a character responds to the conflict of the story.

In the rough stages of illustrating the picture book, Too Many Visitors for One Little House, I had many conversations with the author, Susan Chodakiewitz, about the characters. Susan had a clear vision of the each character in the story. From the nosy neighbors to the new family on the block, every character had background information that contributed to the story. Even though only some of the traits we discussed were illustrated, it was helpful for me to understand these characteristics, motivations and behaviors in order to make decisions about visual details.

Here are a few characteristics of the nosy neighbors from the story:

The meticulous neighbor. She keeps watch on the neighborhood to make sure nothing is out of place.

The grumpy neighbor who doesn’t like change. He would rather have his nose stuck in the past than to get to know the new family on the block.

 

The one stuck in the middle. She just wants to get along with everyone and visually expresses the motivation of the three: to be invited and included.

contributed by Veronica Walsh, Children’s Book Illustrator

Characters Need To Change

As your characters go, so goes your book. Have characters that resonate with your reader and they will stay till the end to see what happens to them. Why? Because you have made them care about the character.

Readers want to see a character change, develop, learn. If you characters remain stagnant throughout the story, the reader may put the book down. Even if they continue to the end, they will not feel satisfied. It is also not likely they will recommend your book to friends.

The most satisfying change is positive. A person has a weakness. It manifests itself. The person sees they need to change. They wrestle with the change. They change for the better.

However, a character does not have to change from bad to good to be remembered. I once read a book that had such a character. I pulled for him all the way through the book. I knew he would change. He had to change! He didn’t. When I finished the book, I was deeply disappointed. I even threw the book across the room! Maybe the character did not change but, years have past since I read the story and I’ve not forgotten that character who disappointed me so much!

Hoping my characters are memorable, Gloria