Week Fourteen - Writing for Children and Teens
From Inspiration to Publication
Raising Strong Characters
September 6, 2016
School started up last week and I’ve barely had five minutes to myself. I am the mother of an eleven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl. I’m also a teacher at the same school my children attend. That said, if people ask me what I do, I usually say I’m a writer. My children also tell people I am a writer. So I can’t feel good if I’m faking it. For me, taking this course isn’t about becoming a writer, it’s about becoming a better writer. It’s about taking my writing as seriously as my parenting.
I love being a parent. It’s hard for sure, but man, is it rewarding. It’s nothing short of miraculous to start caring for a person who is completely helpless and watch as that person becomes independent. My daughter toilet trained herself at eighteen months. People are incredulous when I say this, but it’s true. She was just done with diapers and that was that. Some things about my children are truly incredible, but even the things that aren’t amaze me. When my son gets himself ready for school, pours his own cereal, kisses me, and heads out to the bus stop to be a successful seventh grader, I feel exhilarated. He worked hard to get to this point, but so did I. Every morning of his life, I try to make sure he feels safe and secure. I respect him and encourage him to be who he needs to be. I do the same with my daughter.
This morning as I was writing, I realized that I do the same with my characters, too. They’re like children in that I invent them and then encourage them to be who they need to be in the story. If writers tell you they have total control over their characters, they are lying. Once you develop a character, he/she kind of tells you who they are. The story, the other characters, and the setting craft the main character into the person you wondered about.
At this part in the course, I’m learning how to make sure my characters feel real and the only way I know to do this is to begin looking through my observations of people “in the wild.” I usually take notes about the people I see all around me. I try to write down details in the moment to use these quick observations to craft a complex character who will begin to grow in my story based on the things that happen around him. I take the time to sketch out how he’ll react to things. What makes him angry? What does he do when he’s angry? Does he throw his furniture around? Go running? Draw dragons slaying his enemies? This helps me write more quickly as I am crafting my story. It ends up feeling more like I’m telling a story that really happened.
The Institute of Children’s Literature has a great podcast called Writing for Children, and in episode three, they talk about creating characters for magazine articles.
“Even a strongly plot-driven story needs well-presented characters if it is going to engage. Stories that linger in the mind of the reader nearly always feature characters that become real for the reader.”
It’s interesting (and important!) to put a lot of time and thought into developing the characters you write about not just because you want your readers to enjoy your writing, but also because you are going to have to live with this character for quite a while. Even a magazine story can take up to a month to perfect. Revision and editing have been hammered into my head by my instructor as absolutely critical for successful writing. In some ways this gives me freedom! I don’t feel pressure and can get my first draft out on paper as quickly as possible.
To get back to how I want to value my writing as much as I value my parenting, I want to share a little story with you. A long time ago I took a picture book course with author Susanna Hill. I wrote my first draft quickly for the course. The story had been in my head for a while and it came out easily. The other participants loved my story. They oo’d and ah’d over it so I thought I was done. I have revised this story no less than 15 times!
It still isn’t right.
I’m not sure what is missing, but I know it’s a story that I need to take to the end. In many ways I feel like the main character of the story is one of my children. She grows and changes shape whenever I open up her story and try again. I won’t give up on her. During this course, my instructor has encouraged me to try her story as a magazine article for a magazine like Highlights. I handed in assignment six this week and am planning to go back to this old friend of a story for my next assignment. Just as I would never let my own children sit in their room doing nothing for days at a time, neither will I let my characters hide in my desk drawer. So, out she comes as I take a deep breath and look for ways to expand her character until my story about her feels independent enough to head off on its own.
Kimberley Moran's site
Kimberley Moran is a gifted and talented teacher and freelance writer who lives in Hampden, Maine. She has two children and one very nice husband. Kimberley would like her bio to make her sound brilliant, witty, and kind because she knows that when you write and read you get to be anyone you want to be.