Monday, May 2, 2011

Developing Characters for Children's Literature

     Someone asked me recently how I develop characters in stories for and about children. That's a good question and it has caused me to look more closely at this process. Having only written two children's novels and a few short stories, I can't say that I have a long established system, but what I do has worked thus far.

     Basically, my stories begin with the germ of an idea or theme. Then I expand the idea by asking "what if" questions and/or brainstorming using  "clustering." 

     "What if" questions might go as follows: (let's say the germ of an idea is that a young girl's mother dies and she's left to live with her father) We can ask--what if her father marries again; what if she has two mean daughters of her own; what if they make her do all the drudgery work; what if a handsome prince throws a ball looking for his princess; what if this young girl has a fairy godmother; etc. You get the point.

"Clustering" means to brainstorm connecting words,and these can lead to more ideas. For example if we chose the word "magic." Associated words might be: disappear, change, magician, fairy godmother, wand, hat, rabbit, fairy, etc. Then go deeper by taking each word: fairy godmother--wand, help, kind, rescue, etc. This method can lead to new twists you hadn't thought of before.

As the story develops, I decide on the protagonist: boy or girl, age, family, education, etc. and then go deeper. There are many good lists that are helpful to ask about the protagonist (and the antagonist) that get to her personality and faults. A list I like is in the book  Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. He suggests questions such as:
  • What are her inner demons and how do they influence her actions and decisions?
  • What is her worldview?
  • What is her most secret yearning?
  • And many others.
My characters and stories usually develop together, although she is usually well thought out in the early stages.

Any writers have other thoughts on developing characters?