I say, “We’re just meeting each other now. What would you think if I introduced myself like this: Hello; I’m 43 years old, and my favorite colors are yellow, green, and red; I don’t really like cooking but I do like to bake; I play the cello but I’m kind of out of practice; I don’t like scary or violent movies; I have two parents, two brothers, two children, a husband, and a cat; I’m a bit shy; I’m 5 feet 4 inches tall and I never wear high heels; and I love potato soup, big words, and daffodils. It’s nice to meet you!”
That always makes them laugh. That would be pretty weird, they agree. But that’s what it’s like if they start their stories with a big lump of telling the reader all about their character. I go on to say, “When you meet someone in real life, that’s not how you learn what kind of person they are, is it? So, how do you get to know a person in real life?” Together we come up with ideas… What they look like, What they say, What they do, What other people say about them… And it all happens over time, not all at once. I read an excerpt from one of my books and ask them what they know about the characters from that passage. I point out that I never actually told them that Sam likes to do research or that Kate sticks up for her friends, but they figure it out for themselves because I showed them the children doing it.
It’s a lot of fun, and I hope the children will remember some of this and start to view their characters as people instead of puppets, and their writing as an interesting puzzle and an exciting adventure instead of a dull, compulsory chore.
[Pictures: L’étranger (The Stranger), woodcut by Félix Vallotton, 1894 (Image from Art Tattler);
Little Miss Muffet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002.]