I feel a moment of triumph each time I click save after completing the first draft of a picture book manuscript. But the feeling is sometimes fleeting once I realize how many characters I’ve created. I wrote a story once about a little boy who didn’t want to give up his stroller. It was intended for very young children and my cast of characters included, the boy, his mommy and daddy, big sister, neighbors, apartment building super, pre-school teacher, and pet puppy.
Where first drafts often have too many characters, my brilliant critique group at the time helped me to realize that I had too much going on! There were too many characters distracting from the main idea and flow of the story. After a few ruthless revisions, I removed most of the extraneous characters and the boy, his mom, his teacher and the apartment building super remained. Finally, the story had more focus, depth and flow.
I don’t know if there is a magic number of characters a picture book should ideally have. However, I’ve learned that less is more concerning the elements of picture books. Any character that survives the revision process should be purposeful and move the action forward or contribute to the development of the main character.
On the other hand, I don’t want to limit myself when writing a first draft. I want to pour all of my ideas onto the page when I’m creating a make believe universe with all of it’s inhabitants. Now, when I see that I have too much going on in the character department, I ask myself these questions:
1. Is the character absolutely necessary to the development of the plot?
2. Will he/she/it be missed if I take them out?
3. Why did I include them in the first place?
4. Are they more interesting than the main character and are they fighting for center stage?
5. How many characters can young children pay attention to?
6. How many character names can young readers remember?
7. If I include parents, do I have to include both?
8. How will cutting superfluous characters affect my word count? It usually decreases it :)
Sometimes it’s hard to let go of supporting characters, but if they’re interesting enough they may be able to have their own story. In the end, revision after revision, I’m most satisfied when I find my core characters, the final cast, auditions are over and I click save!
And if by chance I'm still in doubt, I look to the expert examples of some of my favorite character-driven picture books for young kids.
How do you decide whether to keep a supporting character or let them go? I’d love to hear from you!
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she's been writing ever since. She's taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children.
My life is a tornado. Sometimes kids, house stuff, homeschooling, church work, therapist duties, chickens, and everything else pull me into a frenzy of activity that I fear I will never escape. So, how to write?
1. Take advantage of the quiet moments: There's always an eye in the storm. The baby is quiet. The phone isn’t ringing. The older kids are playing cooperatively. You are doing the dishes and you are alone! Take this time to write in your mind. I actually thought of this post today in the car on the way home from a dr.’s appointment. I got home, typed this up, and walla!
2. Carry a notebook or smart phone with you at all times: Strong winds will carry your ideas away, so write them down immediately! Even if you can’t write hundreds of words a day, writing even one word a day can be inspiring (see PiBoIdMo). If you have a way to record your ideas when they come, you’ll get more writing done! My little pink notebook accompanies me everywhere.
3. Turn off the Internet: A tornado can only affect whatever is in the mix. Although facebook and twitter are entertaining, they seem to swallow time faster than a good book. Notice when you’re just surfing the web and turn it off, so you can turn your writing on.
4. Make a schedule: Wind storms are easier to handle when you know what to expect. Look at your calendar for open spaces and fill them with WRITING! Just seeing that on my calendar makes me happy, even if the wildness of the day (or my children) deters me from actually writing. But seriously, keep your appointments for writing. It will only make you happy.
5. Make writing a priority: Hang on to what you love and it won't get lost in the storm. If you find yourself mindlessly watching TV because you’re tired at night, turn the T.V. off and write or go to bed and set your alarm for 10 minutes early. Write for just those 10 minutes. Notice how meeting your muse early in the morning makes you feel.
Feeling good? Then take life's tornado by the tail and spin your story!
Kirsti Call is a homeschooling mom of five. Her debut picture book, The Raindrop Who Couldn't Fall, came out last December. Her family band, Calling Out, plays songs written by her children. She contributes to Writer's Rumpus, and Kids are Writers. If you visit her house, you might find writing a word or two in her pink notebook! You can find out more about her at www.kirsticall.com.
When I think of my favorite picture books, they almost always involve a unique, memorable, character. Whether it’s a dawdling duck, a snoozing bear, or dancing chickens, I want to know what happens to them. What’s their problem? What will they do? Would I do the same things? How will things turn out in the end? Most importantly--after I've clamored through the thirty-two pages--what will I feel at the end? Achieving a goal is not enough. Cleverness is not enough, although it goes a long way. Successful character-driven picture books nearly always end with a satisfying feeling. Ahhhhh!
If you want to write a character-driven picture book, read lots of them. Examine what you feel in the end. What sort of feeling is it? What does the feeling mean?
For example, let’s look at Calvin Can’t Fly by Jennifer Berne. In this book, Calvin is a different sort of starling. Instead of following the flock, he follows his own bookworm interests that have nothing to do with flying. When it’s time for the flock to migrate, Calvin would be left behind, except his friends bring him along. Along the way, they hit a storm. While the flock is clueless, smart Calvin knows what to do because of what he’s studied. In the end, he saves the day, saves his friends, and learns to fly.
If this were about Calvin alone, he could read a bunch of books, outwit a storm even if he didn’t fly, and learn to fly in the end. But there'd be no ahhh feeling. So where does the feeling come from? Although the story is about Calvin learning how to fly, the heart of this story is about friendship and how friends help each other. They save him, he saves them. As they celebrated, Calvin felt so good, he discovered he could fly. After putting his friends first, he happily succeeded at flying too.
Let’s look at my own book, Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg. This book is about a cowboy determined to give his dog a bath. Of course, all his plans fail miserably. After his dog has evaded him for the last time, Clyde gives up and takes his own bath. When he starts to enjoy himself, splashing and singing, suddenly, his dog jumps in too. The pair who were once adversaries, are now scrubbing and crooning under the moonlight together. When Clyde stopped trying to rope, bribe, and trick him, their friendship flourished.
Although I began writing it as a story about a cowpoke trying to bathe his dog, when reached the pivotal, climatic scene of Clyde giving up, I knew it was really about friendship. The story would feel empty, indeed, if Clyde merely took his bath and Dawg stayed dirty. Or, if Clyde’s last trick worked and he scrubbed Dawg just like his pots and pans.
So when you write, think about your character and the feeling at the end. What are you trying to say? What will you feel at the end? If you find yourself saying, "Ahhh . . . " you’ll know you've succeeded.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles. A member of SCBWI, Lori speaks at schools, SCBWI conferences, and has worked as a writing instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature for the past eight years. Recent picture book titles include Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg, (Clarion, 2013), Cindy Moo (HarperCollins, 2012), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault (Random House, 2010), and In the Trees, Honey Bees! (Dawn, 2009). To learn more about Lori and her upcoming books, visit her website at www.lorimortensen.com, or read her blog at http://lorimortensen.blogspot.com.
There are characters we love to hate in movies and books, we run into them all the time. Occasionally we find ourselves writing them.
,Often these are the necessary antagonist to get our main character moving. I’m usually pretty fond of the antagonist. I can never think of these characters without remembering advice that came from my son when he was ten or eleven. I’d gotten angry with a family member, and he heard me complaining to a friend. He got into the conversation, not siding with anyone, but clearly interested in seeing me let go of the resentment.
I don’t know whether this dropping-the-seed-into-the-hole was done as lovingly as it appeared or whether the seed had begun to stick to the roof of her mouth. But it looked like it was done with a kind of tenderness, and then she would, with obvious care, use one paw to cover it with sand or leaves. She’d sort of dance away, feeling a job had been done well, but then she’d pause, look around—probably feeling the presence of an observer as a prickle down her spine—and whip back to the site of the dig and unearth that mango seed with one great swipe of the furry paw. She’d sniff it approvingly, no sign of tampering, snatch it up in her teeth and set off on another search-and-dig mission that would take another twenty to forty minutes of her puppy day.
The feeling I had watching Clio, a kind of fascination, part love, part getting to know her, that’s how I want to feel about my characters, especially the less attractive ones. How else can I put them on the page in a way that will establish them in the reader’s imagination, will hold a readers interest for hours?
Eventually i find something in their experience that is "like me," and like you, something universally understood as cause and then i wrestle him to the floor, bend him this way and that, until I get something that is clearly effect. i write scenes that will never make it into the book, perhaps a day in his past or even his future, i put tangible objects into that scene, i listen to the character's own memories, and i ask myself what all these details mean. i don't rush him, i linger with this character that has been less than fascinating and soon, while i'm mulling over meanings and themes, motives and the stakes this character had in the outcomes, he excavates precisely the information that makes him essential to the story he lives in.
What i don't think about during this process is what i'm really doing, which is writing myself into this character, into an interior landscape that i haven't yet truly walked, but i'm still finding little trail signs, the trod upon leaf, the broken end of a branch, the turned over stone, the damp footprint, and letting them lead me to the self i haven't yet been. When I write myself into a book, when any of us write ourselves into our characters, we must have the willingness to see the charm in our limited understanding, the virtue in our dogged persistence, we must have the courage of our convictions no matter how wrong we are.
Audrey Couloumbis--actually i'm requesting your kind patience. i haven't got the hang of this quite yet and it's too early to call the west coast and ask for help get this columnar layout to disappear. i tried and the pictures moved all around. i'll get it sorted out later today, i hope. And of course, you'll find me here once a month, writing for you. Leave a message and she’ll get back to you.
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