Week of July 10: Author Study—Mem Fox
Tuesday, July 12—Memorable Characters
I’ve written about characters many times on this blog. Mem Fox’s books are a master class in character development. Here's some character advice from Mem’s website:
DO be original: try not to copy the ideas or structures of recent well-known books.
DO “show” and do not “tell”: try to reveal action and character through what the characters say and do.
DO NOT write about inanimate objects such as shoes, a coin, a kite, an ice cube, a piece of sausage or similar. Stick to people, toys, animals, birds or engines.
DO NOT use alliterative names or titles, such as Izzie the Ice Cube, Kenny the Koala or Tommy the Tired Turtle. Use names, which reveal something of the character.
DO NOT assume that plot is the most important element in a story, or even the only important element in a story. Character comes first. Next comes the precise choice of words and the correct rhythmic placement of those words. Then trouble.
DO NOT forget that if the writer couldn’t care less about the fate of the characters the readers couldn’t care less either, and the book will fail.
Mem’s Adult Characters
We are often warned against featuring adult characters in picture books. Mem uses them often and well. Here are some things I learned about some of her adult characters:
Miss Nancy from Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge
Miss Nancy has an endearing name (and that’s why Wilfrid Gordon is drawn to her). She is Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper. The name makes me think she's rooted in family and history, yet we learn she lives alone in a old folk's home and has lost her memory. We see Miss Nancy change in the story. First, Wilfred Gordon’s parents identify Miss Nancy’s problem—she’s lost her memory. Later, she interacts with Wilfrid (whom she describes as a “dear, strange child”), but her memory is sparked and as her memories come back, she becomes engaged, alive, and active.
Lily Laceby from Night Noises
Yes, her name is alliterated, but it is alliterated to tell us more about her. Doesn’t the name just sound like a little old lady? Wonderful sensory details give a description of Lily at the beginning of the book. Then she falls asleep, and despite the noises outside, she dreams on. That in itself adds to Lily’s personality and the humor in the book. The illustrated dream sequences show even more of her character. The closing conversation between Lily and a four-and-a-half year old reveals how Lily views herself.
Oh, wait, let’s revisit the entire name—Boris von der Borch. The name begins to give us an idea of the character before we read or see anything else. The comparisons throughout the book reveal how Boris is like other pirates—massive, scruffy, greedy, and so on. But it is in a tender moment at the end of the book that tough Boris’ real humanity is revealed. And when that happens, we know that he’s just like each of us.
Some of Mem’s animal characters are also adults. We’ll discuss those characters in a bit.
Wilfrid Gordon from Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge
Again the character’s name tells us about him and the fact that his favorite old person is the one with four names also seems to give a clue about Wilfrid Gordon (but it’s left to the reader to decipher the clue). Wilfrid Gordon’s actions tell us the most about him. When he hears that Miss Nancy has lost her memory his curiosity causes him to ask others what that means. His heart causes him to look for tangible objects to represent what a memory his. His compassion leads him to share the objects with Miss Nancy and, thus, help to find her memory.
Wombat from Wombat Divine
On the first page of the book we know Wombat’s favorite holiday (Christmas) and his greatest desire (to be in the Nativity play). We learn about his tenacity as he tries out for part after part. And we learn of his flaws—too heavy, too big, too short, too shortsighted—as he fails at each audition. We see his changing emotions—excitement, anticipation, sadness, and satisfaction. We see him play his part in the play perfectly and we want to stand in ovation. Along with Wombat are a cast of other animals who show empathy, friendship, and a sense of community.
Mother Bear from Sleepy Bears
I suppose human characters could have been used in this book, but reading a bedtime story about bears might seem a little less pushy to the kids you’re trying to put to bed! The Mother Bear character is drawn perfectly with words and illustrations. The way Mother Bear understands each child, and her ability to lull them each to sleep, shows us her motherly characteristics. In the end, when she and the baby bear fall asleep together, Mother Bear seems to become like every other mommy in the world.
The Hat from The Magic Hat
The hat is a main character in this book, but it is questionable whether it’s really a personified object or not. The hat moves this way and that, lands on peoples’ heads, changes them into animals, and more . . . but it may just be moving in the breeze, or acting under the guidance of another’s power, the reader is left to infer. But the actions of the hat are what the entire story is about. In the end, the hat’s owner is introduced, life is restored to normal, and the hat and its owner go on their way.
Characters come in all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. I think it’s time for me to explore more of the character possibilities in my writing.
It’s Your Turn!
1. Review your writing. List the kinds of characters you are using (adult, child, animal, and so on). How is the character of each character being revealed? How can the examples from Mem’s writing impact your writing?
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