Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Active Main Characters

Week of June 19—Main Characters
Tuesday, June 21—Active Main Characters

In Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children, Rosemary Wells writes:

“The characters in a children’s book must reach into the heart of the reader on page one. Emotional content is the main reason a child and a parent will go back to a book again and again.”

From: Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children, Edited by William Zinsser

How do we get to that emotional level in the 500 words of a picture book? There’s no simple answer. But last week, Tammi Sauer introduced us to the term ARF—Active, Relatable, and Flawed. If these characteristics are present in a main character, we may be closer to developing that emotional connection that Wells wrote about. Let’s get into ARF today by discussing active characters.

“A character is revealed through its dialogue and action. Actions show the basic nature of a character. The reaction of the character during a particular situation, and its conduct depends upon factors like experience, background, and personality.”


So an active character has actions, reactions, and dialogue. Each of these three points requires that the writer answer some questions.

ACTIONS: What does the character do? How does the character behave?
REACTIONS: How does the character react? How long does it take to react? With what intensity does the character react?
DIALOGUE: What does the character say? To whom? How?

I could organize my answers on a chart, like the one below:

CHARACTER: ____ _______________________


Let me give you a example from Tammi Sauer’s Chicken Dance. Normally, I would think of Marge and Lola, the chicken duo, as separate main characters, but they seem to function as one entity throughout the book. So I’ll analyze them together.

CHARACTER: ____Marge & Lola_______________________


Tested out talents (3 failed attempts)

Lola smiles as she talks

Scrambled to the top of the roof/jump/flutter/sink in hay

Dust selves off

Lola nods as she talks
Ignored quackers

Try flying/Marge
Flying chickens? That’s talent/Lola

Now what?/Lola
Swimming chickens/That’s talent/Lola

Now I don’t think for a minute that Tammi outlined her manuscript in this way, and I’m not recommending that you do so. But from this little example we can see how powerful action, reaction, and dialogue are in describing a character. Here’s what I learned about Marge and Lola from the few pages I analyzed.

·        They ignore the nay-sayers
·        They are willing to try new things (because they desperately want to win the contest)
·        They come up with creative solutions
·        They are both in on the joke of what’s going on as evidenced by Lola’s “Flying chickens?” and “Swimming chickens?” each said with a smile and a nod (and I can almost image a wink).
·        They persevere—they get up, dust themselves off, and try again.

If Tammi had tried to TELL us all of that, we would have been bored to tears. Instead, she showed us through the actions, reactions, and dialogue of her characters. If, however, you can write a concise description of your characters and create a snapshot of their personality and how they act and react (like the chart and the list above), then you’re on your way to making active main characters.

A while back we discussed the importance of vivid verbs and speech/dialogue tags. (See: “Vivid Verbs,” January 25, “Dialogue Tags,” May 3, and “Dialogue and Action,” May 5.) As you are working to improve the active-ness of your main character, I’d suggest you look back at those posts.

I’ve told the story about the editor who during a consultation said, “Three cowboys sitting around a campfire doesn’t make for a very active book.” She was right, but after some revision (and lots of added action) that editor bought my manuscript. Action, reaction, and dialogue lead to active characters.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Use the chart above to plot out the active-ness of the main character in your latest picture book manuscript. Then amp up the active-ness to make the character come to life!


Romelle said...

Excellent! This is exactly what I need to learn. Thanks, Rob. You're the best! This one goes into my special binder.

Rob Sanders said...

So glad to hear it, Romelle!