Category: Skills

9 Tips for Writing Unforgettable Characters

According to Elaine Marie Alphin (Creating Characters Kids Will Love p. 2)

“Kids read because a magical closeness springs up between them and the characters in books and stories—the same magical closeness I felt as a child. They read because a writer has brought a character to life on the page for them.”

Every great children’s story pivots around a character who has a problem, a desire or a need. Through the events and conflicts of the story this character, by personal investment and volition, solves that problem, gains that desire (or loses it) or meets that need. In doing so, that character changes, grows or learns something.
So, how DO we create memorable characters?

For me, every story begins with the main character. I’ll be thinking “what ifs” and a character will parachute into my head. This usually gets me pretty excited! I get a rough idea of what’s going to happen to this character and how they are going to react.

Next, I get to know that character really well. Some writers do this on paper or screen. I do it mentally for picture books. I can actually “see” the character. That picture is sometimes sketchy. I learn more and more about that character as I write the story.

I try to keep the following in mind with my characters.

 

1. Is this person acting and reacting in realistic ways?
Is this really how a kid this age would think? Talk? Act? React to this situation? If not, ask kids that age how they would act or react. Or watch popular kid’s shows on TV. Or observe kids at a park, library, mall. (Careful! No stalking!)

2. Does this character have flaws?
If so, GOOD! Nobody is perfect. Do these flaws affect how they will react further down the story line? Readers can’t relate to a character who never gets in trouble, never has a mean thought, never acts sneaky, never laughs at someone else’s mistakes. If a character or their life is all good, there’s no story for me to write. My character must have room to grow in the story. Also, does my bad guy have at least one redeeming trait? One tiny grain of goodness in their soul?

3. Have I created enough CONFLICT in this kid’s life or situation?
Here is my personal nemesis. I hate conflict! But NO CONFLICT means NO STORY. Remember the elements of story? Conflicts, problems, issues, sticky situations are the blood and bone of story. No problems to face, to overcome??? YAWN!

4. Is this character someone my readers will love, or maybe hate? Can they feel for them?
If readers don’t identify with or connect with a character either positively or negatively they won’t keep reading the story.

5. Is this character bigger-than-life? Sometimes my characters start with someone I know personally, or someone I see out in public. Are they cute? Make them cuter. Funny? Make them funnier. Sneaky? Make them sneakier. EXAGGERATION, ABSURDITY, PREPOSTEROUSNESS (Yes, that is a real word.) make readers laugh and cry, tremble and shriek with your characters. And it makes them identify with your characters because they know that they themselves are not perfect either.

6. Is this character well-rounded in the story, or one dimensional? Do I SHOW (not tell) how they think? How they act? How they feel? How they speak? Do they always say the same thing? Act exactly the same way? A character who doesn’t fluctuate or change isn’t acting human, and adds nothing to the story.

7. Are each of my characters distinctive? Does the way each of them speaks and acts instantly show my reader which character is in the scene? Can I write dialogue without tags so that readers can identify who is saying each line?

8. Does my main character have one primary trait that the story focuses on? Is their story about their courage? Their fear? Their loneliness? Their optimism? Deciding this gives me a good clue as to the theme of my story. Isolating the way my main character changes identifies the theme of the story.

9. Have I built motivation into this character? Is their need, desire or problem big enough to motivate them to do the things they must do to make the story great? If not, I need to change their personality or situation enough to drive them to go after their goal.

A great story filled with action is fun to read. But if we want readers to ask for more, to keep reading the things we write, we must tell that story through amazing and unforgettable characters.

 

Now plop down in that desk chair and create someone who is unforgettable!

 

 

NEED MORE HELP?

Joyce Hostetter will be presenting on Creating Memorable Characters at our Master Class on September 19. You can find more information here. We hope to see you there!

 

5 Tips for Using and Understanding Literal and Figurative Language Part I

Tip #1: Use clear definitions and illustrations to distinguish literal from metaphorical.

For writers and readers alike, understanding the terms literal and figurative (metaphorical) is essential: what do they actually mean? And how can we distinguish the way language is being used, whether in conversation, on social media, in literature, in advertisements, in business documents, in poetry, or in the Bible?

Recognizing the type of language used in any text or conversation is an essential skill

  1. LITERAL language represents a physical or actual being, object, process, event, idea, or statement (process: sterilization, event: celebration; idea: E=MC2 ; etc.).

EXAMPLES: “I saw a heron fly up from the creek one morning last winter.”(statement/event)

  • CHAIR – an object (furniture) to sit on
  • FOX: a mammal with four legs, red or gray fur, a long, pointed snout, and a bushy tail.
  • KING: a man with political authority over a country or region; he is treated with respect by his subjects and ambassadors from other nations. He may have inherited his kingship, taken it by force, or received it by agreement of those he governs. Bible references to God or Jesus as King are literal claims of His rightful authority to rule.
  • EGGSHELLS: the hard, thin outer covering of a bird’s or other animal’s egg.
  1. METAPHORICAL language represents a concept, idea, or experience using figures of speech which people in a cultural group recognize. Examples include symbol, embellished language, simile, formal [ceremonial] language, humor, sarcasm, exaggeration, understatement, irony, satire, etc.

EXAMPLES: “the wild, light, slender bird that floats and wavers, and goes back like an arrow presently to his home in the green world beneath.  [“A White Heron” -Sarah Orne Jewett] simile

  • CHAIR: “My chair gave me two new projects this week.” We recognize that furniture is not bossing someone around. Here, CHAIR means a person in charge of a company or department, who can give orders because of the position of authority that person holds.
  • FOX: Jesus (when told that Herod wanted to see Him) said, “Go tell that fox . . . “

Why does Jesus call Herod a fox? Foxes’ stealthy behavior gives them a reputation of being sneaky. Calling someone a fox indicates that person shouldn’t be trusted

  • KING: In the game checkers, a piece that crosses the board to the back row of the opponent’s side becomes a “King,” with extra power to move and change direction. A player whose piece reaches this point says, “King me!” The player hasn’t become a ruler, but the king reference symbolizes the increased power of the player’s doubled piece.

A celebrity who is acknowledged as the first or best in an art form or sport may be called “King of . . . “ Jazz, Rock and Roll, etc. [or simply, as with Elvis, “the King.” ]

  • EGGSHELLS: People complain about having to “walk on eggshells.” Children might picture someone walking on a broken egg with or without shoes (‘yuck” and ouch”). What we mean is a sensitive person or situation that we’re trying not to make worse by something we say or do.

Seeing literal and figurative language in books for young children

Writers for very young children work mostly with literal language, helping children learn basic vocabulary. Some board and picture books simply show words and pictures of objects, actions, and people. Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb (Al Perkins, Eric Gurney), depicts various functions these body parts can do and introduces plurals and number concepts (one thumb, two thumbs, one or more monkeys) . . . [https://vimeo.com/54193963 ]

Inside, Outside, Upside Down, by Stan and Jan Berenstain, illustrates prepositions and adverbs like in, out, inside, outside, over and under Pictures show different positions of objects or persons and objects in relation to each other.

Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman, begins with literal words like “Go” and “Stop” before moving on to humorous, fictional, and more abstract concepts as dogs drive cars, ride skateboards, and end up partying in a huge tree house.

Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary, reveals problems caused by literal/metaphorical confusion for five-year-old Ramona. One literal situation that turns out well, though, comes when Ramona allows her neighbor and classmate, Howie, to remove a back wheel of her tricycle. Initially skeptical that this will ruin her trike, she accepts Howie’s assertion that she will have a “two-wheeler,” and careens, zooms, and balances on her newly modified ride.

Other episodes focus on Ramona’s imagination, assumptions, or misinterpretations of what grown-ups say. Ramona herself feels constantly misunderstood as the youngest child in her family. Rejecting anything she thinks makes her look “babyish,” she nonetheless emphasizes her individuality by putting a tail, ears, and whiskers on the “Q” of her last name.Her teacher’s direction to “Sit here for the present” results in a standoff when Ramona refuses to budge until she sees “the present.”

Do kids really need to interpret literal or metaphorical concepts?

We introduce children to imagination and figurative language with humor and games: puns, teasing, peek-a-boo, “let’s pretend,” hide and seek. Most children’s books include these elements, which children enjoy. Through them, they learn to deal with experiences like separation or loss, social interaction and complexity, interpreting differences in tone, facial expression, situations, and words. The combined input of words and personal interaction helps children acquire language skills and distinguish literal from metaphorical usage.

When you read to kids or discuss stories with them, do they demonstrate awareness of differences in literal or metaphorical language? What stories or activities help kids learn how to distinguish figures of speech from literal language? We’d love to see your comments here, on our social media, or email info.write2ignite@gmail.com .

The Power of Repetition

I hadn’t been to church since February, and I was starting to feel disconnected from God. During my first week back in a sanctuary, God spoke to me through a literary device — repetition. 

My church stopped hosting in-person services at the beginning of March because of COVID-19, and I’d missed a few weeks before then because of a bronchitis diagnosis.

Last week, I was visiting my parents in Upstate, South Carolina, and had the opportunity to attend church with them. The crowd was sparse, and each family unit was spaced 6 feet apart, but it was communal worship — something I hadn’t experienced in more than 12 weeks. 

I’d seen my parents cry in the church from time to time, but I’d never really had a strong emotional response during a service.

The band began playing a song by Elevation Worship called “The Blessing,” which is straight from scripture. It shares a blessing from Numbers 6:24–26:

The Lord bless you 

and keep you; 

the Lord make his face shine on you 

and be gracious to you; 

the Lord turn his face toward you 

and give you peace.

I didn’t feel blessed that weekend, despite my safe travels to South Carolina from Central Virginia. I didn’t feel blessed because I was (and still am) working from home with no idea of when I’d be back in the office. I didn’t feel blessed because my husband, a police officer, was working the night shift during a weekend filled with violent protests.

But when the song climaxed, one of the worship leaders began repeating the words “He is for you” over and over again — and something happened. 

Repetition is a powerful literary device that can be used in poetry and prose.

As a writer, I know that repetition is a powerful way to make a point. As a person who has attended counseling for anxiety, I know that repeatedly speaking truth to yourself is a powerful way to change your thought process. 

It felt like God was speaking to me through that song, trying to get a point across, to reshape my thinking. He was telling me that He is for me, that His blessings aren’t always extravagant. More often than not, they will be quiet reminders of His presence. How fitting it is that God, the author of all things, spoke to me, a writer, through a literary device.

The song continued:

May His presence go before you

And behind you, and beside you

All around you, and within you

He is with you, He is with you

In the morning, in the evening

In your coming, and your going

In your weeping, and rejoicing

He is for you, He is for you

The repetition continued, with the singer repeating the word “you” throughout the bridge, reminding me that I am a recipient of God’s blessings. My impression of blessings has always been that they are an extravagant act from God. Yet in scripture, we learn that blessings are small acts of love from God — from the gift of a child to the provision of food and safety. 

This song challenged me to look at God’s blessings in a new way. God blessed me that weekend by giving me the opportunity to worship with other Christians, and he blessed me by protecting me from harm during my travels from Central Virginia to South Carolina.

God’s blessings aren’t always extravagant. They are often displayed through friendships, safety, and provision.

He protected my husband who served on the frontline of a riot on May 31 and brought him home safe to me the next morning. And he blessed me with the companionship of my sweet sister-in-law the night I had to send my husband back to work, despite continuing protests in our city. 

God spoke to me through a literary device, which is a powerful writing tool. While this instance of repetition was used in poetry (a song), repetition can be a particularly useful tool for writing children’s literature. 

Take this passage from Dr. Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish  for example:

One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish,

Black fish, Blue fish, Old fish, New fish.

This one has a little car.

This one has a little star. 

Say! What a lot of fish there are.

 

Yes, some are red, and some are blue.

Some are old and some are new.

Some are sad, and some are glad,

And are very, very bad.

 

Dr. Seuss is well known for his whimsical, rhythmic writing. He uses a combination of rhyming and repetition in his work to create memorable writing that delights children of all ages. 

Repetition is also used in literature, such as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two of Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Dickens adds stress and emphasis to the positives and negatives, bringing attention to the polarity present in his time. 

God used the repetition in “The Blessing” to touch my heart and draw me back to him. I believe he can use your writing to touch others, and repetition is just one way you can emphasize your message of hope through Jesus Christ.

Emily is a member of the Write2Ignite planning team and works full time as a promotional writer for Liberty University Marketing. Learn more about Emily here.

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