Today I want to talk a little bit about character. There are a lot of exercise and sets of questions people put together to help with building character, and I use these myself. They are wonderful tools. One of my favorites comes from Kate Messner, who asks you to fill in the blanks:
This is a story about a boy/girl who wants a happy , healthy mom but underneath that, it’s a story about a boy/girl who wants a “normal” family life .
It’s that underneath part that is at the heart of your story, yes? But often when I ask students to fill this out, I feel that underneath answer they first give is the easy one. And so, I challenge them to go deeper. I prod them and ask, “Yes, but underneath that what to do they want?” And we get a little closer, So I ask them to go underneath that. And then underneath that. A family that talks, a family that stops pretending that everything is normal. A family that is open to posssiblities.
It’s hard, even painful. But I think the deeper we can drill down, the closer we get to the real heart of the story, and it’s often a big surprise. Often, it opens up the whole book and gives the story deeper meaning and greater importance to the writer. It’s also what makes your character real.
But while a crucial step to developing character, it is only the first one. What’s next?
Next, you need to understand what it actually feels like to be your character. To be that kid living with that want, and all the obstacles keeping you from getting it. Whether you are writing a picture book, chapter book, or upper YA novel, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, the most important piece of character development is for you, the writer, to fully embrace what it must be like to live as this character lives. To sleep in this character’s bed. To breathe the air in this character’s home. To hear the conversations that take place, or fail to. To wear the clothes your character wears. To speak as your character speaks. And of course to want as your character wants, and to fully understand why.
I awake, hearing my father shutting the front door as he leaves for his commute to Washington D. C. I need to get up to catch the school bus. I get up as silence fills the air. I walk into the kitchen and find some cereal in the cabinet. I quickly pour the cereal into the bowl and pour a very small amount of milk into my bowl, since I am not a fan of milk. I add some sugar and sit silently at the dining room table eating my cereal quickly. I wash my dishes and put them in the dishwasher, because that is the routine in this house. I go to my room and grab my jeans and a blouse and get dressed then make my bed because that is a rule in this house. I grab my books and then go to the living room where my mom has left her purse. I look inside and grab some coins to buy some food for lunch.
My mom is passed out in bed and I tiptoe in and give her a kiss and whisper to her to have a good day.