In Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s fascinating Ted talk “How a boy became an artist” he speaks of a challenging childhood and says, “...the characters that I read about I fell in love with and they became my best friends. So my best friends in life were the characters I read about in books.”
It’s preferable, I’m sure, for a human child to have another human child as a best friend. If that’s not possible, a dog, cat, or horse is a good substitute. But many of us have also had the experience of a book character being our good companion. After a long day at school or a difficult experience, we looked forward to sitting down with that companion to share an entertaining, comforting, fictional world.
We writers feel validated when children connect with our book characters. It's surprising how much humans enjoy relating to fictional characters. We’re a social species and enjoy being around others, in real life or in the pages of a book. Connecting with book characters is actually a form of social interaction that oils our hearts and our minds.
What kind of characters do readers want for best friends? How do we write characters that children yearn to connect with? The answer to the first question varies with the child. But there are universal elements to keep in mind as we create our characters. Below are three.
1) Unique characters are always in high demand. The uniqueness provides interest, curiosity, and fun.
2) But we also want characters readers can identify with. The identifying is necessary if the reader is to understand and care about the character.
3) Compelling characters are also desired. The one thing we want our characters to have is the power to make readers want to know them better. If the reader becomes impatient with a character – skipping paragraphs or becoming restless or bored - then that character isn’t compelling enough.
Remember when you fell in love? You hung on every word your loved one said and every thing she did. It’s similar when a reader falls in love with a character. The reader hangs on the character’s every word, every action.
There’s another reason a reader might grow impatient with a character. That character may not be moving quickly enough. He may not be making enough happen, either physically or mentally. So use those verbs! In picture books much of the action can be shown in illustrations, but when you have an opportunity or a choice, think verbs over adjectives.
Open Ashley Wolff’s delight-filled Baby Bear Sees Blue. The first page is filled with the character doing things. Lots of verbs.
“Deep down in the den, Baby Bear wakes up. He yawns and blinks and stretches his stubby legs.”
His questions are filled with verbs too.
“Who is warming me, Mama?” “Who tickled me, Mama?”
The verbs guide us through the book as we follow curious Baby Bear’s exploration of the world.
While writing this blog, I looked up at a painting from my Heart of a Tiger and was reminded of the names the four kittens gave themselves at the end. They seem good reminders of what’s needed to help us write characters who will give strong connections to readers.
In Hindi, the names are Bahadur Shikari, Rang Birange Kapare, Sailani, and Bangali Sher Ka Dil.
Mighty Hunter – Be brave! Hunt not only for the right words, but the right character for your story.
Calico Colors – Feel pretty. That’s right. Feel good about yourself. Only when you feel good about yourself and trust yourself can you write your best work.
Adventurer – Be curious. Humans are naturally curious. Readers want characters who are curious; they want to live vicariously through the characters' adventures.
Heart of a Tiger – Have heart and give your characters heart, because if you’re giving your reader a character who might become a best friend, you certainly want that character to have heart.
Called a “born storyteller” by the media, Marsha Diane Arnold wrote the award-winning “homegrown treasures” column prior to penning eleven award-winning picture books. Last year, Marsha contracted with Neal Porter Books for two new picture books, Kate O'Sullivan of Houghton Mifflin for another, and Tamarind for a fourth. She grew up on a Kansas farm, but today creates imaginative worlds and wacky characters in northern California surrounded by her garden, deer, hummingbirds, turkeys, oaks, and redwoods. Marsha's course Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books has helped many published and aspiring writers to write stronger characters. You may read about her books, school visits, and life at www.marshadianearnold.com.
1/11/2014 02:57:15 am
Enjoyed reading your "Character Connections" here. Will look up more of your blogs. Thanks for this piece.
1/12/2014 11:13:01 pm
Thanks Marsha, it was very helpful. I love the picture of you at Baxter County Library.
1/13/2014 12:54:09 am
Timely post for ReviMo week, Marsha! Thanks for the reminders.
1/14/2014 09:49:14 am
Excellent post Marsha. Your words of wisdom are always welcome-thank you!
1/26/2014 02:28:17 am
Thanks all. So glad you enjoyed the blog. As you know, I love characters. :) Hoping some of the stories I sold last year will become a series, so I can play with the characters in them more. I can dream. :) There's so much at Mira's academy! I love reading the other blogs too.
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First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
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