You know I have mentioned the Children’s Book Academy and their upcoming Craft and Business of Writing Children’s Picture Books interactive e-Course, but I thought you might be interested in reading an excerpt from one of the topics studied in class and provide some inspiration, to start out the New Year, right.
Developing Memorable or Quirky Characters
by Dr. Mira Reisberg
In all plot-driven stories, the main character is called the protagonist (or hero) and is usually the age of the reader. The other characters are either supporting characters – a best friend, family members, or a companion animal are usually the closest supporting characters – or villains of different degrees (mean school kids are less villainous than the robbers in one of my favorite books, Dav Pilkey’s Dog Breath, and have more of a potential to change). However, whoever your characters are, it is essential that they be interesting, especially the protagonist who also needs to be sympathetic so that the reader cares about their story and wants to stay with the book.
Memorable characters often have… interesting or unusual names that reflect something about them, their time, culture, or milieu (though an appealing or intriguing name isn’t enough to make a character compelling), or better yet are a total contradiction of who they are. For example, Sparky is a sloth who is the furthest thing from being sparky as in energetic or lively, so it sets off a humorous disconnect.
Memorable characters also have imperfections or inner contradictions, are off-beat or unusual, have problems, or fail at something consistently until they accomplish something amazing and are changed because of it.
Memorable characters are people (or animals) we want to spend time with or conversely are people we don’t want to be near, usually the villain(s) if there is one. If you have a villain make them somewhat three dimensional to add depth, such as they have a soft spot for something tender (like spiders) or provide some background so we can understand why they became the way they did.
Each of your characters needs to have a specific voice or way of speaking, specific mannerisms, and a specific look to show what kind of person he or she is and engage us. The illustrator will provide much of this if you provide clues such as, “Wilfred tossed his long hair back, chewed on his nails, and hunched over in the small chair, waiting for Mrs. Pettigrew to return from lunch.”
You want to avoid too much description of clothing etc., as this is the illustrator’s job to show what you don’t tell in words, enabling you to write spare, economic, and poetic text. My example above not only gives clues to the illustrator, but it also tells us that Wilfred has some kind of problem/ anxiety connected with Mrs. Pettigrew, and is a bit rebellious with the long hair. Mrs. Pettigrew’s name sounds like an older authority type “growing petty,” while Wilfred suggests someone who’s not very hip or is a little out of date as well as the implicit question “will Fred?”
Personally, I am very drawn to what are known as quirky characters, or quirky books. In writing this I reflected on what makes a character or story quirky. So I came up with some traits that might well be incorporated with a few examples for each:
1. Unpredictable or unexpected situations or plots.
Spoon (jealous cutlery), Tales from Outer Suburbia (alien cultural exchange), Scaredy cats (not a predictable happy ending)
2. Unlikely pairings or odd couples
Sophie’s Squash (Sophie and her squash), Penguin and Pinecone (geographically challenged friendship), Wallace’s Lists (opposites attract)
3. Unlikely mashups or unreliable narrators
Dogzilla, Vamperina, Guess Again?, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
4. An innocence
Sophie’s Squash, Leonardo the Terrible Monster, Firefighters in the Dark
5. Rebellious spirits
Most of the No books mentioned earlier this week, Chloe and the Lion, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus et al.
6. Happy obsessions and abnormal hobbies/objects
Dragons Love Tacos, Sophie’s Squash, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (sugar obsession or is it something else?)
7. Fresh approaches to language and/or literary conventions (the 4th wall, meta narratives etc.)
Writers using the 4th wall address the reader directly, meta includes information about the creating of the book or other books.
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (4th wall), Miss Brooks Story Nook (meta), Guess What? (Meta – creators argue)
This post, Creating Memorable Characters, is part of a much larger focus on character and character development but hopefully you’ll find it helpful in playing around with writing your own characters whether you can take our course or not. Meanwhile…
Random House/Knopf editor Kelly Delaney’s and Mira’s FREE webinar/workshop on January 5th they will be delving deep into the topic of Perspective and Point of View, which are fantastic tools to make your story fresh and more original.
Attendees have the opportunity to play with these techniques live and listen to the recorded session later. You might want to register for this while it’s still free
And then there is Mira and Kelly’s interactive e-course, the Craft and Business of Writing Children’s Picture Books course starting on January 9th,. Here are just some of the topics covered:
Creating Compelling Hooks
Pacing – Page Turns
Perspective – Point of View
Obstacles and Problems
Nonfiction Subject Matter
Voice, Diction – Language choices – Syntax
Universal Themes and Identifying Underlying Themes and so much more.
During the five plus interactive weeks, we give you a ridiculous amount of help and you can work directly with Kelly and me and/or join us in the fun with our helpful free webinar. To inspire you to start your new year right, Mira is offering a super special $70.00 course discount for the course ending tomorrow January 3rd at midnight. She also offers easy payment plans. Sign up and join our growing list of published, agented, and/or contracted writers and illustrators.
Bio: Dr. Mira Reisberg is an award-winning former kidlit university professor, a best-selling children’s book illustrator/writer, an editor and art director, and a former children’s literary agent.
She’s also the director of the Children’s Book Academy. Her passions (obsessions) include kid’s books (of course), creative problem solving, helping others get published, being creative and loving life.
REMEMBER: The webinar is free on the 5th, but you must sign up.