Monday 5 May 2014

A Change of Character by Michelle Robinson

Characters have always felt like a chink in my armour. When I’m writing a picture book, I tend to work roughly like this:-

- Concept
- Work out the best beginning, middle and end
- Write it down
(Ah, I make it sound so simple! Trust me, there's always plenty of brain ache involved along the way).

Sometimes the order I work in changes, and there’s usually a lot of revisiting any one - or all three - of those steps to find the right voice and whatnot, but that’s really about it. I’ve always known there’s something missing in my approach: CHARACTER.


Characters are what publishers want to see and who readers want to meet. Yes, they want great stories, but the key to really hooking people is who that story belongs to. Who's unique voice are we hearing? Who are we going to side with? Fall in love with? Worry about? Tut at? Snuggle up with by the glow of our night light?

The trouble with my natural approach writing is this: characters are often just the person (or chicken/gorilla/mammoth) the plot happens to. That’s not to say they aren’t good or believable characters, because I usually manage to get the reader to bond with them emotionally. But they're certainly not as strong as they could be; not multi-book-TV-series-and-a-cuddly-toy strong. That's often what lets my stories down at acquisitions meetings, if they make it that far. 

No merchandise? Get your illustrator's mum to make it. Thanks, Mama Hindley!

Not one to mope over criticism, especially when it echoes something I already know, deep down, I recently took myself on a one day course in 'Character Mapping'.

I had to smile to myself as I sat in the lecture theatre, taking notes as the inventor of 'Character Mapping', Laurie Hutzler passed on her wisdom - and she really is wise (and perceptive, fast and funny - highly recommended). Sure, Laurie comes from a screenwriting background, but her approach to storytelling translates to picture books, too. I found myself smiling wryly as she spoke about characters needing to face up to their fears instead of holding back from becoming their truest, bestest selves. She may as well have been talking about me.

I took 26 pages of workshop notes. TWENTY SIX.

I do hold back. I worry that I can’t create great characters, so I don’t risk trying. I stick to what I know - concepts, plotting, word play. Not any more!

Now I have new, improved SUPER POWERS and the knowhow to create stories that start and end with characters - authentic ones who act just the way they ought to as individuals. Even if they are completely made up, even if they do live on the moon and have five legs, they will behave in a way that is totally real and - in true picture book style - totally relatable. 

I like to think I had something to do with creating the characters in
There's A Lion In My Cornflakes, but I suspect it was all Jim Field's doing.

So I'm going to try breaking the habit of a lifetime, starting with character rather than concept. It can't hurt to try. I won't necessarily use the full 'Character Map' to do it - although I would certainly use it for longer fiction - but I'll use some of the lessons I learned along the way. Lessons like:-

- 'TELL ME MORE!' the required response from a reader when they first meet a character
- THE DEFINITION OF 'TO BE ENTERTAINED' IS TO FEEL SOMETHING if the reader isn't feeling something, they're not being entertained - and they'll lose interest
- To create emotional connection you need VULNERABILITY and VERISIMILITUDE
- And in comedy, IF IT DOESN'T HURT, IT ISN'T FUNNY 

I love that last one. I also wrote down 'DELIVER SOMETHING EXPECTED IN AN UNEXPECTED WAY'. That sounds awesome, if quite a challenge. My unexpected way is going to start with the writing process itself, by putting character at the heart of my stories. What's the worst that can happen? If I do find I'm naturally, incurably concept-driven, from now on at least I'll always write with much more awareness of character and they won't just fall out of a plot ever again. (I might at least add one sentence that shows I've thought about them...)

You can read about Laurie Hutzler's 'Character Mapping' in detail here. You'll want to free up some time and get yourself a whole pot of tea first, it's quite detailed and lengthy, but it's very good.

Thanks for reading, I hope it helps you think about the way you write. I'm off to enjoy today's Bank Holiday with two very real, very chirpy characters who have been acting true to form by bouncing on the bed next to me while I typed. Please excuse any typos.

For more on Michelle Robinson, including writing advicecolouring sheets and free audio games to accompany her picture books, visit her website


Jon Burgess Design said...

Interesting post, Michelle,
That sounds like a very useful course you went on. 26 pages of notes! Blimey. . .
It just shows how different us writers can be in our approach. My stuff tends to start with a character or I'm sunk. I can't think up a story without knowing the character of the Character, as it were ;-) But then I get ideas rejected from lack of story. . .

Michelle Robinson said...

I find it fascinating how differently we all approach writing, Jonathan. I know a lot of writers who start from character. I think I start from concept because I'm programmed to from working in advertising for so long. The course was brilliant, so many great insights. I had brain ache by the end of the day.

Paeony Lewis said...

Great post, Michelle. Character is really tricky when you have just a few hundred words and also aren't the illustrator. When I have lots of spare time (ha ha!) I'll enjoy reading the character mapping link. Some books are more character driven than others. Thanks :-)

D.J. Kirkby said...

Thanks for this post - it has come at a time when I need it (well this past weekend would have been better actually - where were you?), and I am going to bookmark it for future reference.

Moira Butterfield said...

Thanks Michelle! I'm like you - I love plotting and adding action, but character tends to suffer. I'm writing for 7+ at the moment - It's very action-led, but without strong characters it fails. The course sounds fascinating, and I'll make that pot of tea..Thinking about strong characters in a picture book - Tony Ross comes to mind as being very good at that.

Teresa Heapy said...

Brilliant post. I think you (and Laurie) are absolutely spot on about characters' emotions being the key to EVERYTHING in every type of storytelling. Hard to remember when you're in the middle of a crazy plot, so very good to have a reminder. I'm off to make that pot of tea.

Tina Cho said...

This is great; just what I needed to hear today as I revise my pb character.

Pippa Goodhart said...

REALLY interesting. Thanks, Michelle.

Abie Longstaff said...

I also start with plot! But I'm not sure that's such a bad thing. Obviously you need to build in character as well but I'm not sure it matters which way round you start. I sometimes get bogged down in all the 'writing advice'. Some of it is useful but it's also important to develop your own style, know what kind of author you want to be and do what you are good at! For me, I think I'll always be more of a plot author than a character author. Don't forget - a lot of character can come through via the plot eg in Where the Wild Things Are, we learn a great deal about Max's character by the fact that he chooses to go on a voyage and dance with the beasts, both of which are elements that I would describe as plot-based.
Having said that - I'd love to do that character course!

Michelle Robinson said...

Tony Ross is wonderful, eh? Good luck with the story!

Michelle Robinson said...

Yes, I think it all comes down to emotion. I'm going to carve EMOTION! into my desk. Or perhaps my forehead...

Michelle Robinson said...

Absolutely, character is a part of the bigger picture - it's just one that's often not very well-formed with me. I find set-piece writing approaches have their uses, taken with a pinch of salt. Knowing a couple of theories makes me feel like there's a safety net beneath me as I write, but I never start writing with them in mind, I just see what happens. (I often end up flailing about in the net, sobbing).

malachy doyle said...

I liked that, Michelle. Can you do us one about PLOT now? Then we'll all be sorted!