So You Want to Write a Children’s Book–Searching for Characters

There are all kinds of entry points for stories— image, situation, an idea that provokes wonder. I’ve begun with all of these, but have had the most success when I enter a story via character.

A character you care about + curiosity + willingness to listen=a host of writing miracles that eventually end in story.  I have been whispered tales by a cow who wants human companionship, a girl who hides in kudzu, and a boy who attempts magic and winds up trapped inside a wall.

This session, all my students are focused on picture books (a fortunate thing for a ten week class), except one writer who has struggled with a novel for a long time and now wants to see if she can test the plot by trying it in a picture book format.  I am impressed with her decision as exploration is an important part of the process.

I am fortunate indeed in this class that each writer has come with an inkling of an idea—a young child who has an important relationship with a grandfather, a tiny miniature purple dog, an amazing French car, a rooster who expresses himself rather differently than his flock, an inventive turn-of-the-century heroine who needs these skills to support herself and her family, and a forgetful grandmother whose grandchildren are constantly sent to fetch her many types of glasses.

I have had students who struggle the entire session to catch a character who seems to continually slip out of reach.  To me a character is a writer’s passport to enter the land of  creative serendipities.  To aid students I have suggested three ways to begin the discovery process:

  1. Mining your past—locate a remembered time and place that evokes a strong emotional memory and slipping into the skin of your former self
  2. Reimagine a fairy tale character, enriching and refreshing the story.  (My student, Diana, speaks of borrowing a familiar plot as writing with “training wheels.”)
  3. Give in and write about the character who has haunted you for years, begging you to write about him/her/it.

I’ve had many students who find that once they’ve given characters permission, the flood gates open. Some characters are for now, some for later, some for others, some for never, but guaranteed, they will slip away if you don’t acknowledge them by writing them (and your ideas and images) in a character idea file.  Some students get so many ideas their difficult comes in choosing which one to fix on. If you haven’t found one, here are a few thoughts about how, when, and where to locate a character.

  • Celebrate magic minutes (the time you wake, the drifty time before sleep, the time post-power nap, or during meditation).  Make time to daydream and have pen and paper ready! Ask yourself at day’s end: did I see/hear anything I want to remember?  Ask yourself on waking: what did I dream about?
  • Re-write a scene from your life—capture all the senses and practice your powers of visualizing. Is there something you uncover that urges you to write more?  Or take an unhappy situation you remember and change the ending.  I once wrote a book called Whisker Kisses that I believed was for a friend whose husband had died and at the time there were no children’s books on the subject.  It took six months before I realized that I’d written the story for myself.  My father died when I was two and my mother never talked about him.  But the heroine’s mother did!
  • Watch for strange combinations and unexpected relationships. Look for and welcome the strange, outrageous, and improbable around you.   Or write down random ideas on slips of paper, put them in a bowl, pick two, and see if you can put them together in a way that generates a story idea.

If you have not yet discovered a main character, here are few prompts that may help.  Take one character that intrigues you and do a free write (an unstructured brainstorming on paper).  If that thought of that seems overwhelming, set a time and commit to writing for just five minutes.  You can do anything for five minutes.

  • Write about a character with a special talent
  • Write about a character with a secret
  • Write about a character with a hidden fear

So one more bit of writing…let me know if any of these ideas were helpful! Are there others that you’ve found successful?

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