“Actions, looks, words and steps form the alphabet by which you may spell character.” Johann Kasper Lavater
Much of my day job is spent tuning into young children and trying to understand their motivations and desires. Following a curious infant, hell bent on discovering where a forbidden object has gone certainly helps you see their investigative ingenuity in full force. A few weeks ago I heard a child development expert describe a typical two year old. “Their job,” she said, “is to find out how everything in the world works.”
This observation came back to me in a different guise as I listened to Natascha Biebow at a recent SCBWI masterclass on developing characters. “Observe the world around you,” she said, “and think about what motivates children to do what they are doing”. The world of children is mostly determined by what is happening to them “in the moment” and if we watch we can often find great starting points for writing a really satisfying story.
Just WHO is your character?
In any story a credible character is the most important element. They are what makes a story intriguing enough for readers to keep turning those pages. If the author knows exactly what drives their character then they are on the right track to making their story come alive. Carefully considering a character’s backstory and the world they live in really helps us understand what they want, need, love or fear. Knowing this we can start to ask ourselves, “what if?” What if they want to make a surprise birthday cake? What if they need to make friends but don’t know how? What is it, in that moment, that makes them act in a way that is true to them?
One of the magical things about stories is that your characters can live in any world you choose. Yet this doesn’t mean that just anything can happen to them. As Natascha describes it, “we need to write from a place of knowing.” Clarity about the setting they live in will means we can avoid gaps and inconsistencies in the internal logic of the story. We can make decisions about our characters’ behaviour that our readers will believe, leaving no horrid plot gaps. Natascha shared several picture books where the internal logic is so well thought through that the reader simply does not question banana eating crocodiles or ducks trying to make friends with all the animals in the zoo!
What’s the worst that can happen?
Once your character is thoroughly understood, the next key ingredient is their dilemma; the thing that creates a problem for them. As Mo O’Hara recently commented, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters? Make it happen!” Natascha took this one step further. Any plot problem is intrinsically linked to the characters motivation. We need to ask ourselves, is our character also going on an emotional journey to solve their problem? A character’s traits can also be used to create conflict, which in turn creates an emotional situation for them to deal with. We need to feel that at the end of any story a character has changed or grown as a result of the journey they have been on.
As part of the workshop we were asked to bring along a favourite character in a book and I had brought along an old classic, Burglar Bill. I’ve probably read this story aloud several hundred times, but as I talked through Bill’s tale of villainy and redemption it became immediately apparent that this was exactly what we had been discussing! Burglar Bill is motivated to steal things and it is this characteristic that compels him to steal a baby by accident. Bill really does go on an emotional journey, learning to be responsible and look after people rather than stealing. As a reader we do care about him and the consequences of his actions are important to us. Bingo! Bill is a character that matters to the reader and by the end of his story we are more than ready to go ahhhh! Deeply satisfying on all counts. No wonder Bill is a classic character!
When characters go wrong!
When you don’t take time to get to know your character well enough this can quickly become evident in your writing in several ways:
- You end up telling not showing!
- You lose your characters point of view
- Your character doesn’t come across as authentic
- The plot is either too much of a list of events or is not about the character’s motivational problem
I’d already been scratching around with a new idea and the time we had to discuss and apply strategies we had discussed to our own projects was very productive. I discovered that by thinking more about my main character’s motivation, I could actually chuck out huge bits of my imagined story which suddenly became totally unecessary! We were also able to get some written notes on a presubmitted story and my own feedback was a casebook study in the things that can go wrong list. No matter! After this brilliant session I am more than motivated.
©Chez l’abeille 2017