Sunday, January 15, 2012

Part One - The Art of Building Character

Based on a two-day "writing for kids" workshop I did with writer Oisin McGann, I thought I should share what I learned with you.
 I must apologize if this post sounds a bit messy or broken up but since we receive no handouts, i had to write everything down and my pen had difficulties following up with his speed of speech.

Because it was a quite dense two day course, filled with information, I decided to divide it into three posts.
The first part can be summed up to the Art of Building Character.  The next part I will write in the next 2 weeks or so, so Keep Tuned!

Oisin started his course by mentioning to us the rule of the 3 P’s : 
Place and people are always intertwined and those 2 often lead to the problem in the story.

A Person outside his or her element would act and have to think differently.
Ex: an English speaker in the middle of China.
Ex:: an alcoholic in the desert.

How would your character deal with this situation?
That’s how a story becomes interesting.

When it comes to write for children, it’s the same idea. 
A problem (much simpler) arises and the character needs to solve it.
Ex:  the Owl babies by Martin Waddell
Mummy Owl goes away.
Any child can relate to their mother having to go away. The key is to keep in mind the needs of your audience: what you are trying to achieve and the questions you want them to answer.
For example children or babies do not have the notion of the passage of time and this is something you need to be aware of, in order to make your story relevant to them.
Where is Mummy? When will she be back?

Empathy is very important.
You need to make your audience care for your character.

The question you must ask yourself as a writer is:
What happens next?
To make a story work, you must make the reader want to keep on reading so he or she wants to answer this question.

A)How to find a character? 
Often writers have difficulties to find a character and to come up with one can be a daunting task.
So the best way to do this is to demonstrate who they are and how they think.
Exercise1 : describe the character out of a film without telling the name of the hero/film/actor’s name.
Ex: He has a hat that he never parts with. A whip he carries around. He’s brave but not recklessly brave. He teaches archaeology part time and he often seems absent minded because he often thinks of an artefact.
Try this yourself.

This exercise should also be applied in writing.
A character should be like an actor, well defined and easy to describe.

When or if you do this exercise with kids, kids usually are much better at it because their description are simpler and to the point.

Ex: He’s yellow, has a belly and drinks beer.
Homer Simpsons.

Ex: He’s yellow, square and lives under the sea.
SpongeBob SquarePants.
Often the purpose of the character will dictate what they are.
Like a detective:  A detective will usually be clever, educated, inquisitive, not very well dressed, ect…

B)How to make a character interesting?
1)Give him or her an edge.
Ex: a policeman who has a drinking problem
Ex: a pianist with a broken finger.
Ex: a dog with no sense of smell.

2) choose negative qualities for your character that turns out to have a positive effect on others.
Stephen King did this a lot.
He would make his audience care for a murderer and you would feel sympathetic because he cared for his wife and child.

3) Or pick a positive quality which is in fact annoying.
Like a humorous man who always say sexist jokes, or an honest person who’s a goody two -shoes.

C)How to give depth to your character?
To give a character real depth, the quality of a writer is to let the reader see how good or bad he is by showing how he acts rather than how he thinks.

When writing about a hero, don't tell us that John don’t know whether he should save Sally or Marie from the fire ; show us that he runs to Marie and drags her out with him then goes to Sally to wake her up .

Anyone who’s ever written a short story or taken a writing course has heard the words “show, don’t tell.”
While “telling” can be useful, even necessary, most people don’t realize how effective the “showing” part is. It allows the reader to really put himself or herself in the shoes of the hero/heroine. Basically it makes your character believable and sympathetic to your audience.
How to do so:
1)Use dialogue rather than plain description
2)Use sensory language
3)Use verbs instead of adverbs.
4)Describe their interests, hobbies,ect…
5)Be specific instead of vague:

Details of people’s lives make a story real.
Ex: Instead of saying: “he dislikes when his mash potato is mixed with peas on his plate”
Say:  he started to pick the peas individually out of his mash potato.

As usual I don't bite so feel free to leave a comment....


  1. Very interesting, look forward to the other posts in the series. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Very informative and helpful post. Thanks for sharing it on the group mailing list