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Creating Characters as Real as Spit by Maribeth Boelts

This week at Two Writing Teachers we will be featuring seven published authors and illustrators. We hope this blog series will inspire you to read, write, and create. Also, we hope these posts will be useful to you in the classroom when you use an authors'/illustrators' texts with your students. 
This week at Two Writing Teachers we will be featuring seven published authors and illustrators. We hope this blog series will inspire you to read, write, and create. Also, we hope these posts will be useful to you in the classroom when you use an authors’/illustrators’ texts with your students.

At a workshop I attended years ago, a children’s book editor advised the writers to create characters “as real as spit”.  A graphic illustration, for sure, but one that has stuck with me for over 20 years of writing for children.

It’s not always easy to tell if you’ve created a character this real, is it? How do you know if your main character is believable? Or if he/she could walk off the pages of your story and live out an authentic kid life?

For me, it often comes down to empathy and visualization.  How completely is my heart engaged in this kid’s story?  How well can I visualize the scar on his knee, his strivings, his sense of humor?  How vividly can I imagine what it would be like to live in her family, go to her school, experience her wins and losses?

IMG_3308 (2)In my new picture book, A Bike Like Sergio’s, Ruben longs to get a bike like his best friend’s.  Even with his birthday around the corner, Ruben is certain his parents will not be able to afford such an extravagance.  Standing in line at a local grocery store, Ruben sees a woman drop a dollar bill.  Feeling frustrated by his bike-less state, he scoops up the dollar and shoves it in his pocket, without trying to return it to the woman.  At home, he pulls the bill out of his pocket and discovers it is not one dollar, or five, or ten.  It is one hundred dollars– enough for a bike like Sergio’s.  What will he do?

I experimented with characterization in this story, at first attempting to tell the story of found riches in an animal world.  Cow, Chicken, Horse — a treasure chest in an open field.  Sounded straightforward enough.  But telling a good story isn’t about ease–it’s about authenticity.  And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t empathize with or visualize my animal characters very well, and my heart would simply not engage.  I scrapped this version of the story, and asked myself the key question… (man, I talk to myself–do you??)

“What is the story you REALLY want to tell?”  

That question brought a boy to mind.  A skinny, curly-haired, brown-eyed boy.  A boy with a three little siblings, and a mom and dad with lots of love but stretched thin financially.  I could see him.  I could visualize his full-to-overflowing, kid-worn apartment, and the corner grocery he visited with his best friend.  I could sense his longing.  And I tried to tell his story, not to deliver a message, but to make a child with a similar longing feel understood.  Once I had the loose bones of my character in place, I could get to work on the plot of his story.

For me, a sense of the character is developed through the writing of the story, not in advance of the story with character sketches.  For other writers, the character is fleshed out thoroughly in advance, and launched into the story. Personally, I like the mystery of letting a character unfold and not knowing exactly how he or she will respond to the plot around the corner.

Here are a few tips to creating authentic, unforgettable characters:

  • Mine your own life for succinct, personal details. Who were you as a kid?  What made you belly laugh?  What kept you awake at night? Or filled you with fury?  Or made you nearly burst with pride?  Why did you keep certain secrets?  “We see from where we stand” is such a true adage, and we “write from where we stand” as well.
  • Tune into the kids in your inner circle.  These may be your own children, a particular student, a niece, nephew, or neighbor.  Do your very best to understand these inner circle kids, the way they are wired, their light and their shadow.  Imagine yourself in their shoes, going about their day, experiencing their joys and sorrows, capitalizing on their strengths, and dealing with their challenges.  Let your affection for these kids fuel your imagination.  And let that powerful, inspired imagination lead you right into a story!
  • Collect and study examples of great characterization.  (Mentor texts, anyone?) Some of the amazing examples on my shelf: The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, and Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate.  For picture books, Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, Last Stop of Market Street (particularly the grandma) by Matt de la Pena.  This is just a snippet–there are so many awesome books that do this well, and are just asking for you to parse out how the author has created unforgettable characters.
  • Experiment with first person point of view. While there are limitations, first person POV can have a magical way of unleashing your own imagination, empathy, and visualization which will help you sink right down into your character, and unfold his story.

We often swoon over a certain book because we love its main character.  That main character has become as “real as spit” to us because of the intentional, intuitive way the author has fought to make that happen.  And that fight is worth it!

 

I am dazzled by the continuing inspiration and encouragement this writing and teaching community provides to so many, including me!  Thank you, thank you!

Maribeth Boelts is the Iowa author of 35 books for children, including Those Shoes, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones, and Happy Like Soccer, illustrated by Lauren Castillo.   Her new Candlewick Press picture book, A Bike Like Sergio’s will be released September 2016, along with two Random House early readers, Pupunzel, and Ivy, the Fairy Dogmother.  With a teaching background, Maribeth loves to present to and work with young writers throughout the United States. Contact: http://www.maribethboelts.com/.

Giveaway Information (from Stacey):

  • This giveaway is for three copies of A Bike Like Sergio’s.  Many thanks to Candlewick Press for donating three copies (one book for three different readers) of Maribeth’s forthcoming book.
  • For a chance to win this copy of A Bike Like Sergio’s, please leave a comment about this post by Saturday, June 4th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. We’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names will be announced at the bottom of this post, by Monday, June 6th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so we can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Candlewick Press will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Stacey Shubitz will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – A BIKE LIKE SERGIO’S. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Thank you to everyone who left a comment on this post. A special thank-you to Maribeth for taking the time to respond to so many readers’ comments!

I used a random number generator and freegriffa’s commenter number came up. Therefore, she’ll receive a free copy of A Bike Like Sergio’s.

122 thoughts on “Creating Characters as Real as Spit by Maribeth Boelts Leave a comment

  1. Thank you for sharing such practical tips for developing authentic characters in the writing process. Being able to empathize with the character and truly visualizing what they are doing are such great indicators of that process.

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  2. My students love Those Shoes as they were able to connect it to their life and emotions. It helped their critical thinking and quality writing as well. I can’t wait to read A Bike Like Sergio’s to them!

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  3. I really appreciated your ideas on how to develop characters that are as real as spit. I find the suggestion to mine your own life for personal details a great idea to help my first graders get characters with depth. The questions you presented as probes will be great to use to foster deeper character development. I can’t wait to try this.

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  4. I’ve been trying to better develop a character for a PB manuscript I’m writing. I’ve used some tools from SCBWI. However, this post is helping me too! Thank you for your sage advice, Maribeth. I appreciate it!

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  5. I’m a big fan of Happy Like Soccer after using it this year in the 2nd grade unit of study for reading. I’m looking forward to A Bike Like Sergio’s.

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  6. I will certainly remember the phrase to create characters as real as spit! Love the focus on empathy in character development.

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  7. What a wonderful way to think of starting the year in the fall, focusing on believable/true characters with students of all ages, characters that are “as real as spit!” Students will love the statement as well as mining through their own lives to create believable characters. I can hardly wait to read Ms Boelts new book as well. I’ve loved using “Those Shoes” with students!

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    • It’s so inspiring to read that you’re already planning your writing launch in the fall. There are so many books with truly believable characters, and it’s infinitely interesting to try to “crack the code” on how the author has created them!

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  8. The book sounds like a great addition to any classroom library and I love having one more example to share with students about a “real” author who had a story in mind, but then scrapped almost all of it because it just wasn’t working.

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    • Sometimes stories are locked tight, and a writer has to keep prying open the lid with lots of different versions before one opens the story he or she really wants to tell. It can be a frustrating process, but I like Anne Lamott’s philosophy that all writing “feeds the stream”!

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  9. What a great post! I am inspired to try something different with my writing, and that is a great position to teach from! I look forward to reading the book, A Bike Like Sergio’s!

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  10. I love this post! It inspires me to try something different with my own work, which is exactly the right way to present ideas to students! I look forward to reading this book!

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  11. What a great post! I am inspired to work differently with my own work- which is exactly the right way to present ideas to students! I will be looking forward to reading this book.

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  12. This is such great advice! Mrs Boelts visited my school this year and shared this same advice with our students and I saw them apply it to their own writing and it made a difference. I can’t wait to read her new book!

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  13. I love your tips for creating authentic characters. Particularly tuning into the people around you. Not only would you be creating strong characters with realistic backgrounds and lives, but you’ll get to know the people you are around much better:)

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  14. I love the reminder to think about yourself as a child. What fantastic stories we all have! I feel inspired to write now – thinking about the story (or stories) I really want to tell.

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    • Ruben ends up deep-down proud, even without his bike. When I share this book with students, they all want to know if Ruben eventually gets his bike, and I tell them YES, I believe he does. Oh, the relief!

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  15. The question you ask yourself, “What is the story you really want to tell?” reminds me of the question Carl Anderson says he asks himself and other writers, “What are you really trying to say?” I’ve thought of that often since hearing him say it last summer at TC. And every time I ask myself that question and go back to writing with that question at the front of my mind, my writing becomes more authentic. I love your list of mentor texts for studying characterization. And your tips are great.
    This author spotlight series is terrific.

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  16. Love hearing how you tried a certain way & then scrapped the whole idea & I don’t think you worry too much about talking to yourself. I certainly don’t. It just gets embarrassing if I think out loud!

    I’m working on a story right now & you are inspiring me to keep going. In fact, I might try to make my Miss Silkie, the chicken, & Arnold, the pig, as real a spit, right now!

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  17. I would love to use this book as we write our own realistic fiction. There is a great life lesson here that the kids could really relate to. I love that we can have fun fiction that has a positive impact on life.

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  18. Thank you for giving the green light to break away from the almost-mandatory, pre-writing character sketch! I’m eager to know the rest of Ruben’s saga.

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  19. I love Maribeth’s books, and so do second graders. I was stopped by the first line–characters as real as spit–but that line says a lot in so little. I also think it’s interesting that Maribeth tried to write this with animal characters first.
    It’s not often I see my name in reference to someone else. Stops me every time. 🙂

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      • And I love this feeling I have right now reading your comment! The amazing author who created Jeremy wrote to ME! Keep creating rich characters in books. And know that GREAT book discussions are occurring in my classroom to help my students figure out how best to live using examples like Jeremy (and soon, Ruben!).

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  20. Children need books about real problems that do not sound “teachy”. I love Maribeth’s other books and I can’t wait to read this book, A Bike Like Sergio’s!

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  21. This post fits so nicely in with the series writing we’re doing in my classroom! I’m sure I’ll be referencing it when I work with my students this week. Thanks!

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