Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

Getting to Know You

on November 8, 2013

As writers, we hear a lot about getting to know our characters. In the abstract, that makes most of us very happy. This means we can have long conversations with ourselves at Starbucks and, when anyone stares, we can just explain we’re working out a scene. Hopefully, that will satisfy the starer.

But, what does this really mean for us? I’ve been working on a middle grade novel for about six years and it’s at least semiautobiographical. So I should know the main character pretty well, right? Oddly, it wasn’t until Mary Quattlebaum, speaking at the recent Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference, asked the right question that a light bulb came on. I think I finally understand all that this character wants. It doesn’t matter what the question was. I’ve always looked at things a little sideways. I just needed someone to use the right combination of words at the right time to help me find her motivation. Writers must get to know their main character. Not to mention their antagonist and secondary characters.

And now I’m thinking of ways to apply all this to all my other works. I’m participating in Picture Book Idea Month (www.taralazar.com/piboidmo/), which brings a whole new crop of stories and, with them, a whole new population of characters. It usually surprises non-writers just how difficult it is to write a picture book. Parsimony takes on new meaning when editors tell you to keep your story under 600 words. Which means we need to know our characters that much better in order to find the salient points. And the main character is often a small child, an animal, or an inanimate object. How does one get to know a Teddy bear? I suggest having the bear travel everywhere with you and maybe keep a journal of impressions. My friend Ellen Ramsey (Twitter handle @SowingIdeas) recently pointed me to an article about Brits whose Teddy bears tweet. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2488291/Does-teddy-TWEET-2-5m-British-bears-social-media.html#ixzz2jrns3cN6) The part I found most enlightening was that men are twice as likely to set up social media accounts for their bears. As for getting to know small children characters: color in a coloring book, go to the zoo, walk around on your knees, make a huge mess, jump in a pile of leaves, etc. (Okay, I admit this part isn’t hard work. The hard part is holding onto thinking like a child.)

The point is that no matter who the characters are, the writer must get to know them or they won’t ring true. Our youngest children are the quickest to spot phonies.

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