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?
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.