Jersey Farm Scribe here on
Picture Books: Character Development in Every Word!
We all know that our characters need to resonate with the audience. They need to relate to them, yearn to grow with them, feel their pain and celebrate their accomplishments.
It’s asking a lot. But it’s what keeps little fingers reaching for the same stories again and again.
It’s not as easy task when I’m working on an MG project, and I’m sure it’s a struggle for any authors no matter what the genre. But when I’m working on a picture book, I have an even smaller window to describe my characters, and far less opportunities to tell SHOW others what makes them so special.
The intimate relationship we have with our manuscripts sometimes makes it necessary to take a step or two back. WE may know Little Lucy or Bumbling Bradley just as well as we know living, breathing children in our life. But we are tasked with putting entire personalities into as few as 500 words and still having room for a story!
- I just re-read that last sentence. Putting it that way on paper makes it sound even more daunting.
But (deep breath) fear not! There is something truly beautiful hidden here as well.
One of my favorite things about writing picture books is that it is genuinely the epitome of the POWER of words. An entire story told in fewer words than this blog post will have. A full story arc with beginning, a middle and an end. And not just ANY story arc, one that will attract an agent, dazzle a publisher and make both parents and children reach to pull the story from the shelf time and time again.
Each word has a fingerprint.
Every word chosen MUST fit not only in the sentence, but in the essence of the story itself. Verbs are not only describing the action of the story, but setting the intangible style, the VIBE of the characters and of the story itself. Adjectives do more than describe the subject they’re linked to, but represent the attitude and individuality of the characters they are entangled with.
Snort and giggle may have the same definition. But the aura of the characters they describe, are distinctly different.
Bounding, lurching and hopping may all describe the same actions, but one word may bring up stronger images of chaos, versus innocence or playfulness. And to make things more… let’s say exciting… there are no hard and fast rules. The same word used in one sentence may have different implications when used in a different way.
Well, that’s just not helpful at all, is it?
While a daunting task for sure, these word description choices also open almost limitless doors. The power is in our hands. The slight change of a few words can alter an entire story, or give that extra shimmer of life that our characters so desire to have.
So okay, how do I DO that?
For me, something that helps me is when I assess every individual sentence in my picture books in two ways:
Auditory and Meaning
We have the benefit of knowing that 99 percent of the time picture books are read, out loud, TO our ultimate target audience. That’s powerful knowledge! And it’s important to capitalize on it. Of course, most picture book authors know the importance of reading your manuscript out loud from cover to cover. But you can go a step beyond that as well.
I take every individual sentence and read it out loud, numerous times in a row. Think about how the words sound together, how they physically feel coming off the tongue. Try different adjectives, new verbs, try to add or remove a comma, just to see if anything has a more pleasing flow, a more playful sound or something that fits better with the mood I want my readers to be experiencing.
And I ask myself, what would my character think of these sounds?
If I don’t feel that my character would have a natural and deep connection with the sounds and intonations throughout the story, than I’m probably not giving my readers a chance to connect with my character.
Again I take each and every word from each sentence individually and dissect it for meaning. As the great Ame Dyckman would say (author of Boy + Bot, Tea Party Rules and more), it’s the Picture Book Word Count SMACKDOWN! If a word does not make you tingle, if you don’t read it and say to yourself, THAT’S IT, that’s EXACTLY IT… find a better word or take it out!! Trust that your illustrators will know what they’re doing and that they will express the details and description so that you can focus on action.
Again, play with new verbs or adjectives and be sure that each word matches not only the scene that you’re painting in their minds, but the tone of the moment, the spirit of the main character and the emotion that the memory of reading the book will create.
The best picture books and characters are often burned into our memories for our entire lives. The words from these stories carried much more significance than their mere definitions. They were the medium for living, breathing characters that tiptoed off the pages and into our world. Your manuscripts have the opportunity to exercise the profound power of each individual word.
Your manuscripts… and the characters they will bring to life… are worth it!
Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at www.TheJerseyFarmScribe.com where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!
Thank you Erika for another great post.