Monday, June 20, 2011

Finding Great Main Characters

Week of June 19—Main Characters
Monday, June 20—Finding Great Main Characters

Main character
The star of the show

Our favorite books of all times are the homes of our favorite characters of all times. Just look back at Tammi Sauer’s books we explored last week. We love Chicken Dance because we love Marge and Lola. We connect with Mostly Monsterly because we connect with Bernadette. We care about what happens in Cowboy Camp because we care about Avery.

If you want readers to love your books, to connect with them, and to care about what happens in them . . . then make those readers love, connect with, and care about your main character.

Sounds easy, right? Today let’s explore where some writers get inspiration for their characters. Maybe along the way, we’ll find a great character or two, too!

     “The basic character in many of my books is me, particularly in the Frog and Toad books. I also base many of my characters on friends of mine.
     “I sympathize with all my characters, even though they may not be terribly pleasant. I don’t think I’ve ever really created a terrible villain.”

—Arnold Lobel as quoted in How Writers Write by Pamela Lloyd, p. 72

Another example of characters coming from real-life can be found in this excerpt about Margie Palatini:

“. . . Palatini says her son, Jamie (now 18), had a bad hair day every day of his life. She twisted this kernel of truth a million ways making it as outrageous as possible to become Bedhead (Simon & Schuster, 2000). The Perfect Pet (HarperCollins, 2003) began with memories of Palatini’s sister who always wanted pets as a kid, but was never allowed to have them. “We weren’t allowed to have pets,” remembers Palatini. “She pretended to be a dog or a cat. Now she has nine cats, two dogs, birds, rabbits, and turtles.””
“Who Wrote That? Featuring Margie Palatini” Published in California Kids!, April 2006

My inspiration for Cowboy Christmas came from a family photo. The Raney cousins (that’s my mom’s side of the family) lined up each Christmas for a photo. One of those photos shows us in matching cowboy gear. (Don’t ask me why, since we lived smack in the middle of the Midwest.) That photo led to the development of the three cowboys in my book—Darryl, Dwight, and Dub. (By the way, I'm on the far right in this photo!)

So main characters can come from life, but that’s not the only place to discover them. I find character inspiration in the weirdest places. For instance . . .

·        An ad cut from a magazine
·        The name of a cake
·        A recipe
·        Playing with words/twisting words/alliteration
·        Etc., etc., etc.

Many writers and illustrators complete character profiles for their characters—names, ages, appearance, habits, likes, dislikes, etc. There is value in doing so, but with caution. You definitely need to know your character inside and out when writing about him/her. However, most of those details will never appear in your manuscript. Whose job is it to show what a character looks like in a picture book? The illustrator, of course. And your vision of that character and the vision the illustrator has of that character, may be totally different.

Where you do have most of the control is in the ARF of the main character—the actions, relatability, and flawed nature of the character. We’ll turn our attention to those elements the rest of this week.

It’s Your Turn!
1. What inspires your main characters? Realizing where your inspiration most often comes from can help you be tuned in to ideas on a regular basis.

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