Building Characters in Books for Children

by Jill McDougall  

 

Pamela tore through the dungeon at breakneck speed. The evil wizard was gaining on her. Up ahead was a glimmer of light. She doubled her efforts. 

"Not so fast," growled the wizard, as he tugged at her sweater. 

 Poor Pamela is in a bit of a pickle. Will she escape? What will the nasty wizard do with her if she doesn't? And, more importantly, do we care? 

 

Probably not.

 

Who is this Pamela anyway? The reader isn't told. She's just some girl in a sweater running very fast. A nobody. If the evil wizard snatches her up and turns her into... er, Pamcakes then so what? It's all a bit of a yawn.  

 

What writers really want to achieve in dramatic scenes like this are racing pulses, bulging eyeballs, trembling organs. And that's just in the readers.  

 

If Pamela seemed more like a real person and less like some wind-up doll, the reader would be more interested in her predicament. The writer's job is to bring Pamela to life so vividly, so intensely that the reader not only cares what happens to her, but is filled with a sense of urgency on her behalf. This is a huge writing challenge. How does one even begin to approach this daunting task?  

 

Let's reach into the writer's toolbox for some of those character-building techniques used by the pros. The first of these is...

 

Sensory detail  

 

Real people like you and me don't perform actions in a vacuum. Complex information floods our senses every second - we see, we feel, we hear, we smell and we taste. By weaving these sensory details into a scene, writers invite the reader to enter the body of the viewpoint character. The reader hears and feels what the character is hearing and feeling.  

 

Let's see what happens when we embellish the dungeon scene by adding some sensory information.  

Pamela tore through the dungeon at breakneck speed. The evil wizard was gaining on her. The drumming of his boots echoed in her ears 

Up ahead was a glimmer of light. She doubled her efforts until her breath came in great choking sobs 

"Not so fast," growled the wizard, as he tugged at her sweater.  

Salt stung her eyes 

Now the reader has an up-close-and-personal sense of Pamela's experience. But is this enough? After all, she is in mortal danger. What is going through her mind? Probably not Grandma's recipe for lentil soup. Pamela's plight will seem even more compelling if the reader can witness her terrified thoughts. To make this possible, we must dig a little deeper into our writer's toolbox for a dash of...  

 

Interior monologue  

 

Since Pamela is not holding a conversation with anyone - at least not out loud - the only way to know what she is thinking is to tap into her brain.  

Here goes...  

Pamela tore through the dungeon at breakneck speed. Her chest seemed to be on fire. The evil wizard was gaining on her. The drumming of his boots echoed in her ears She'd never make it.

 But wait.

 Up ahead was a glimmer of light. Priscilla doubled her efforts until her breath came in great choking sobs. Come on, she urged her trembling legs.

 "Not so fast," growled the wizard, as he tugged at her sweater.

 Salt stung her eyes

Ah! Now the reader has become Pamela. Now the reader is running through the dungeon on trembling legs. All of a sudden, the reader has a stake in the outcome. It will be hard (we hope) for our reader to put the story down before Pamela is safe again.

Inviting the reader to step inside the character's head is a powerful technique. Imagine how much more power we could invoke if the entire scene was filtered through Pamela's eyes - not just her thoughts and feelings but everything she sees around her. This brings us to the judicious use of... 

Setting  

What is the setting in our sample scene? A dungeon with a glimmer of light at one end. It's not much to work with but let's see what we can do. Don't forget, the aim is to describe the setting as the character experiences it, rather than reporting it objectively. 

 

At the moment, we have... 

 

Pamela tore through the dungeon at breakneck speed

 

Here, the reader experiences the dungeon from an onlooker's point of view. The reader is standing apart from Pamela watching her run through the dungeon. But how might Pamela herself experience her surroundings? 

 

Let's see...

 

Pamela pushed on - the dungeon a blur of shadowy faces behind steel bars 


Aha! Now the reader is positioned behind Pamela's eyes. Good. That cranks up our reader-character bond another notch or two. And it not only paints a more vivid picture of the dungeon BUT it raises the stakes. The reader now has a chilling insight into Pamela's cruel fate. 

 

Let's consider the other visual reference...

Up ahead was a glimmer of light...
 

Here, the existence of the light is being reported to the reader as one might report a UFO sighting in a newspaper. Instead of having the narrator tell about the light, why not let the reader experience it as Pamela herself might?  

Remember, she has been running through the dark, so she may not even recognise the light at first... 


There was something up ahead, a dusty yellow glow from... from a lantern, or a torch. No, not a lantern. She blinked away tears. Yes! The light sliced across the floor in a perfect triangle. It could only mean one thing. She doubled her efforts.

By filtering this scene, bit by bit, through Pamela's experience, we have been able to slow the action right down. This heightens the tension and makes the story more rewarding for the reader. After all, why does anyone want to read your story in the first place? To be entertained. To escape into another world. To feel something.

Since the whole scene is now written through Pamela's point of view, the last line doesn't work any more. 

"Not so fast," growled the wizard, as he tugged at her sweater

Here the reader has to leap out of Pamela's head to look 'outside' at the wizard pulling her sweater. It's not something she could see from behind. So, how would Pamela experience this moment?

"Not so fast." The wizard's breath was warm against her ear. Then she felt something worse. Far worse. An urgent tug on her sweater. 

At this point, we should give the wizard a stronger presence by naming him. We need an evil name - something that twists the mouth sideways and sounds vaguely menacing. Let's call him Eekial. Oh, and let's give the main character a more suitable name while we're at it. 'Pamela' is a tad old-fashioned with a hint of mediocre. Since she's our main character, it's important that we use every tool at our disposal to encourage our readers to care about her. We need a name that has a warm, affectionate feel - something distinctive but not too common, like... Molly.

 

The first draft of this scene is nearly complete. First draft? Yes, because now we have to weed out the clichés, strengthen the weaker words and search for fresh images that will give the piece a distinctive 'voice'. Somewhere in our toolbox we should find a sharp pair of snippers to help us...


Shape and Prune 

 

There are a number of clichés and weak phrases in our piece that need attention. Let's just deal with one. 

 

The drumming of his boots echoed in her ears.

This has a familiar ring, both in drumming and in 'echoed in her ears.' Cliches tend to dull the reader's mind and deaden their response to your character.  

Perhaps Eekial's boots could hammer instead of drum, or, for a more emphatic rhythm, simply 'thud, thud, thud…'? 

 

And instead of the boots echoing in Molly's ears, perhaps she could feel as if they are thudding right inside her skull? 

 

Let's have a look at the newly constructed scene.  

Molly pushed on - the dungeon a blur of shadowy faces behind steel bars. Eekial was gaining on her. Thud... thud...  thud. His boots seemed to be pounding inside her skull. She'd never make it. 

 

But wait. There was something up ahead - a dusty yellow glow from... from a lantern or a torch. No, not a lantern. She blinked away tears. Yes! The light sliced across the floor in a perfect triangle. It could only mean one thing. Molly doubled her efforts until her breath came in great choking sobs. Come on, she urged her trembling legs.

 

"Not so fast." The wizard's breath was warm against her ear. Then she felt something worse. Far worse. An urgent tug on her sweater. 

 

Salt stung her eyes. 

 

Noooo!  

Sorry, I couldn't help adding that last bit. It all seemed so real for a minute :). 

 

(c) copyright Jill McDougall 2003

 

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