The character struggle.

Don’t they say ‘It’s a sign of strength to know your weakness’? I’m not sure who ‘they’ are either but someone says that, right? Or something similar maybe?  Well, regardless I just said it and one of the areas that I struggle with most is Character Development. For the most part, my characters are flat, one dimensional and probably a little cheesy which leads to the dreaded ‘sweet’ labels that my stories so often get. (As a gentle reminder for those of you who haven’t been on the receiving end of this word, ‘sweet’ is typically not a good thing… not in this picture book world. Here it basically means ‘soft’.) I’ve mentioned before that I’m participating in a book study right now of Ann Whitford Paul’s WRITING PICTURE BOOKS, and let me tell you, I’ve been anxiously waiting for Chapter 6, Creating Compelling Characters.  By anxiously waiting I’m talking about the kind that comes when you’re sitting in the waiting room at the dentist office, and you’re pretty sure he/she’s going to tell you that you have a cavity, even though you really have been brushing twice a day albeit a little hurriedly each time. In your defense it’s only because you’ve been busy writing brilliant picture books. Not to mention, when an idea strikes you have to act on it, even if you just so happen to ALWAYS be brushing your teeth. Still, you know you need to hear it. You’ll be glad when it’s over, even if it’s a little painful and you’ll have a better, healthier mouth as a result. Sure.

I was having a conversation about this struggle of mine with a dear friend (and book study moderator- extraordinaire) when two things hit me:

1.       I struggle with only feeling productive when I’m actually writing/revising a manuscript so stepping back to do a character study on someone you only see for 500 words is easily dismissible. (I know this line of thinking is only hindering me, I’m working on breaking this habit.)

2.       I did one. I did a massive character study on a certain main character from a certain first (and shelved) manuscript. (CoughNathanCough.) I knew him inside and out, front and back. I know his favorite color, family life, interests, etc. You name it, I knew it, and it didn’t get me anywhere. If I can be honest, a part of me feels a little burned.

And I had this conversation with a fellow picture book writer that I had the pleasure of meeting at the SCBWI JambaLAya Kid Lit Conference in March.

As a writer of picture books, I’m always aware that I will have no say in what my characters will ever actually LOOK like. I don’t get to decide their facial structure, eye color or physical quirks.  I won’t get to decorate the walls of his bedroom. I don’t know if her hair will be in pig tails or braids. I don’t know the color, size, shape or shine of any of these characters that are swimming around in my brain. The illustrator gets to decide all of this.  I think I have a very healthy appreciation for this unique aspect of writing picture books but, as a result, the characters I’ve created are all a little blurry in my brain. I think it’s how I keep myself emotionally detached, but if I can’t envision your face, how well am I ever going to know you? Even all of my far-flung writing friends have a Facebook photo I can glance at.

And this is all to say that I really have no excuse. Everything I’ve ever read says that if you want to write a picture book that has any chance of becoming successful, regardless of your definition of the word,  you have to know your characters and know them well beyond the 32-page snippet of their life. There’s a part of me that also thinks character development should be an active, engaging, creative process in and of itself.  I’m often called away from the computer when I start leaning in that direction; maybe I grab a paper and pen, or a sketch book and pencils, once was even molding clay, but I never got very far with any of them. I spent so much time gathering supplies and making glamorous, glorious plans, that I didn’t have any time to actually do anything creative. So, I probably need to let that go too, this expectation that I’m going to make something wonderful as I get to know my character. Or maybe I don’t need to let it go, but reign in it. Maybe I need a process and one that is easily reproduced? I definitely need to change my line of thinking that it’s not a productive use of my time. I also should quit wallowing in the past and be grateful for everything I learned the first time around. I also need to let myself own my characters a little more. They are mine after all, they shouldn’t be blurry.

I have 4 manuscripts that I consider ‘priority’ right now for one reason or another. I owe it to all four to pause and flesh these characters out, regardless of whether or not they are submission ready or not (or even submission SENT.) Oh, well. There’s no time like the present! In order to hold myself accountable, I’ll post here and update on my progress next week. Doesn’t that excite you? Won’t you sleep better just knowing I’m brushing my teeth like I’m supposed to? 😉

 Hold the phone!  What was I thinking? It’s NaPiBoWriWee! It’s #50PreciousWordsforKids! The character studies still need to happen, but two of my favorite writing challenges converged on the same week (when I’m also up against a big work deadline!) It’s go time, folks… stay tuned for more on NaPiBoWriWee (National Picture Book Writing Week) and #50PreciousWordsforKids. 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

 

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