When I first came across the book TURKEY TROUBLE a couple of years ago during my kids’ school’s Scholastic book fair, I had no idea Wendi Silvano lived in Colorado or that we would eventually meet. I just knew, after I read the book, that I HAD to have it. So I bought two copies — one for my daughter’s classroom and one for us. You can imagine, then, how excited we were when TURKEY CLAUS came out.
And that is the power of a character-driven picture book. One book is seldom enough because we know these characters so well we just HAVE to find out what happens to them next.
Fast forward to fall 2013 and I found myself sitting next to Wendi during the Rocky Mountain SCBWI book signing. I was a little nervous and a lot starstruck, so I said the first thing that came into my mind: “Want to be a featured author for 12 x 12 next year?” Wendi not only agreed, she one-upped me by JOINING the challenge too. So now she’s one of us, and once you read her post, I know you’ll agree with me that we’re lucky to have her in our midst. AND one lucky 12 x 12 participant will win a critique from Wendi at the end of the month. Here she is, giving her thoughts on writing good character-driven picture books. Please welcome Wendi!!
PSST: Haven’t signed up for 12 x 12 yet? 530 of your peers have! Click here for all the details on how you can join us before time runs out and we close the doors until 2015.
Engrossed in a Goose
So, that wily goose you saw out-smarting all the other geese for the bread you tossed out at the lake just won’t leave your head. You keep thinking about him—chuckling at his clever techniques: how he slyly moved in and snuck the crust when the two bigger geese were fighting over it; how he took it behind a nearby bush to eat it before either of them noticed it was gone; how he proudly honked as he waddled past them, scoffing at how oblivious they were.
If someone like him seems to take up permanent residence in your mind, rejoice! Ask him his name. (He will tell you if you listen). Then ask him what he wants more than anything in the world. Ask him what keeps him from getting it. Ask him what he is afraid of. Ask him what makes him the happiest, who his best friend is and what he’s planning to do this weekend. In other words, learn his whole story (not just what’s going on today).
Then, once you know him inside and out try writing a story about him. He just might become the star of your very own character-driven picture book… the most sought after picture book manuscripts, according to many editors and agents today!
The answer is no. Not every picture book with a main character is character-driven. So, what makes a picture book a character-driven one?
A character-driven picture book is just what it says—a picture book where the character drives the plot. Think of it this way: In a character-driven picture book the story is more about the character than about the plot. What happens in the story happens because of the attitudes, personality and character traits of the main character.
Think about two different well-known picture book characters, Fancy Nancy (created by Jane O’Connor) and David (from the book No, David! by David Shannon). If both of them encountered the same problem in their story—let’s say being stuck indoors on a rainy weekend—would the same plot ensue? No way! We know these characters well enough to know that Fancy Nancy would surely “fancy” up the place and put on some type of elegant to-do, whereas David would likely end up in a load of trouble for wreaking havoc all over the house. Their unique personalities and desires would determine the plot.
The wonderful thing about writing character-driven stories is that, once you have developed a compelling character and come to know him well enough, all you need to do is come up with a dilemma for him to face and you will know pretty well what he is likely to do.
So, just what will make your character compelling? Try asking yourself these eight questions to see if the character that is stuck in your head is compelling enough for a strong, character-driven picture book or picture book series.
1. Is he likeable and authentic? Readers won’t connect with a character that doesn’t seem real. He can’t be entirely mean or completely good. He must have genuine flaws, but still have a good heart.
2. Is he relatable? A child needs to care about your character. This will happen when readers recognize themselves or others in him, and when the character experiences the powerful emotions of childhood in an authentic way.
3. Is he “one of a kind”? What makes him memorable? A stereotypical character is boring. Your character needs a distinctive or oddball feature that distinguishes him from the other multitude of characters out there. But remember, this shouldn’t be a quirk just for the sake of having a quirk. It should be something that emerges from who the character is or what he experiences.
4. Does he have a dream, a passion or a deep fear or worry? The stakes for your character have to be high enough to capture the interest of the reader.
5. Does he stay true to himself? Your character must consistently act “in character” (unless there is some compelling reason not to). As you write, let him drive the story, not you. The story should move forward because of how he reacts to the various situations he encounters.
6. Does he have the ability to act and change the things around him and solve his own problem? Young readers desire control and power over their own lives, and they like characters who have that and who become their own heroes by finding solutions themselves.
7. Does he have a distinctive voice? Would the reader recognize the character from just hearing one of his conversations? Is he someone the reader would recognize on the street?
8. Have you fallen in love with him? If not, it is unlikely anyone else will.
So, grab that goose. Let him move in with you for a while. Get to know his motivations, what inspires him, what upsets him. Get to know how he understands the world. Then go write his stories!
Thank you Julie for asking me to write this post on character-driven picture books… they get my vote as the most fun to write!
WENDI SILVANO has always loved picture books, but she didn’t always know she wanted to write them. As a child, a sister to 8 siblings (6 of whom were younger), a teacher and a mother of five, she had innumerable opportunities to read and fall in love with picture books. When she quit teaching after her third child was born she made a discovery that lead her down the path of writing them as well. She discovered that she wasn’t the least bit domestic (cooking, sewing, gardening, decorating and the like were all either disasters or terribly boring!). The only part of being a “stay-at-home” mom that she loved was the “mom” part. So, she began turning her love for picture books into a passion and a career. She has been writing for children for almost 20 years and is the award-winning author of seven picture books, more than a dozen emergent readers, numerous magazine stories and teacher resource books as well as hundreds of educational reading passages. Her books Turkey Trouble and Just One More both won the IRA’s Children’s Choice Award, while Turkey Claus was named one of the “Ten Best Picture Books of 2012” by YABC. Her other awards include the IRA’s Paul A. Witty Short Story Award, the EdPress Award for Excellence in Children’s Magazine Fiction, The Highlights Magazine Fiction Contest, The Children’s Writer Early Reader Contest and others. She currently writes from her home in Grand Junction, Colorado. Her latest picture book, Turkey Trick or Treat will be released in 2015 from Two Lions Press.Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Authors, Creativity, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, SCBWI, Writing · Tags: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Author, Character-Driven Picture Books, Creativity, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blog, Julie Hedlund, Picture Books, Turkey Claus, Turkey Trouble, Wendi Silvano, Writing