Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Proper Care and Feeding of Your Character


In mid-June I spent a week at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference (WIFYR) and was lucky to spend some time in Ken Baker's writing workshop. Ken is the author of several picture books for children such as Old MacDonald Had a Dragon, Brave Little Monster, and Cow Can't Sleep. His newest, How to Care for Your T-Rex will be released in April 2019.

In his workshop, Ken focused on how writers can create engaging characters. I am sure if you were to list some of your favorite characters, you would find that they harbor some common traits such as persistence, unique talents, compassion, wit, spontaneity, and unpredictability, along with some strong inner conflicts. In Writing the Break Out Novel, Donald Maass says that unforgettable characters whom readers end up talking about for years act in unusual and unexpected ways that are dramatic and irreversible. Characters like Charlie Bucket, Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen come to mind, along with Olivia, SkippyJon Jones, and Mother Bruce.

But how exactly do writers begin to create those kinds of characters? Have you heard the phrase, "It builds character?" Hopefully, you have because I heard these words a lot growing up; and I hope it wasn't because I was a frequent complainer of long chore lists, or because I had the unlucky habit of getting into trouble. But like raising kids, creating characters doesn't happen overnight and it doesn't happen in a first draft. Interesting characters come with a lot of back-story or baggage--however you want to look at it, so figuring out exactly who your character is takes a bit of digging--before, during, and maybe even after you're done writing--and Ken's workshop helped me see how to do that with a variety of different exercises.

One writing exercise that I found especially powerful for creating picture books involved making and comparing lists. Ken had us brainstorm a list of things that our character wants. This list was followed with a list of things that children want.  Then we compared the two. It became immediately clear that when writing for children, our character wants/needs should probably mirror those of child. I suppose this exercise would hold true for whatever audience you write for. This exercise helped me sharpen a couple of my manuscripts with some subtle word changes. It also helped clarify the underlying themes my stories were based on.

A second writing exercise involved comparing two other lists we made. One of admirable or likable qualities of our character versus one of traits or obstacles that are in direct opposition to those qualities. The most surprising outcome of this exercise was that I saw I could actually write my manuscript-in-progress from two different perspectives -- that of the character I was focusing on, or that of the opposing set of characters he was up against. Either way, I saw that I had two equally interesting approaches to one problem, depending on which Point-of-View I wanted to take. And since I am in love with both characters in the story, I was intrigued by this idea.

I'd be interested to hear the results that other writers have with these exercises, as well as any tricks that you use to dig deeper in character development.

Ken has loads of writing resources and information on his  website, so be sure to check it out. You can also find him on twitter @KenBakerBooks and facebook https://www.facebook.com/kenbakerbooks/

Happy writing!

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