Distilling a character down to the core is a very important part of my process. I find complex characters are often just characters we don’t know well enough yet. In order to write stories for them, especially children’s stories, I think the main traits of any character should be simple and clear.
But here’s something to keep in mind: so often, it is the exceptions that can make our characters interesting and real.
An adventurer who wants to explore! Except that dark shady bit of the forest. We’ll stay well away from there.
A character who just LOVES everyone! Except that Mrs. Hoofpoke who lives on the corner.
A character who is constantly grumpy. But secretly leaves gifts for neighbours when they aren’t looking.
Adding an exception to a dominant trait adds interest and story potential. The trick to making that exception work comes back down to the simplicity of the trait. You have to stick to your own rules. Too many exceptions, some inconsistencies in how you apply it and your character just slips away from you.
Get your core traits clear. Then play with an exception.
Just a quick post on character and story here and the point is in the title: create someone to cheer for. At the end of your story, when there are obstacles to overcome (small in preschool, growing as your audience gets older), give us someone to root for. Have us, the audience, want that person to succeed.
It sounds obvious but it’s easy to forget. Our complex characters can quickly slip into unlikeable. Our clever twist on morality can take an audience out of the story if they disagree. Give the audience a reason to care. For both the goal and the character.
There are many ways to do this so see what you can come up with. When in doubt, go with enthusiasm. An enthusiastic character will attract supporters, both in your story and in your audience.
I was at a roller disco a few weeks ago (I’m the roller disco king). It was my daughter’s birthday party and I thought the idea of roller skating was a little bit crazy because of the varying abilities of the kids and the potential for accidents. Nevertheless, the kids got on great. Even those who were skating for the first time just went for it.
Sure, they fell over a lot but they got up and kept going. And one kid who fell over a lot soon started to get the hang of it and the speed of progress was pretty astounding.
I was skating around and I saw him skating with all the other kids and he was doing brilliantly. It was like he had done this many times before. He looked smooth and confident. I gave him a big wave and said “Well done!”
And he fell on his backside.
I broke his flow. I was just trying to be encouraging but I interrupted him while he was making real progress. He had focus, he had momentum and I pulled that away from him. I guess at least I was being encouraging so he got up and set off again with a smile. I wonder how much worse it would have been had I shouted something like, “Bring your feet together! Go faster! Not that way, this way!”
So today’s thought is very simple: when someone is doing something good, let them do it. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t become an obstacle. Just allow it to happen.
One of the difficulties in tackling notes arises when you have notes coming in from different sources. It is rare that everyone wants the same thing. Some individual notes can completely contradict each other. Worse still, if you look at the overall picture of the notes (see last post) it can become clear that several people involved have a different vision for the project.
So how do you keep everyone happy?
The obvious answer is that, mostly, you don’t. But the hard part is that, almost always, you have to try.
I’ll fall back on an old analogy of mine. You’ve got friends coming over. One likes red wine, one likes white wine, another prefers beer and someone just wants a cup of tea. But you only get to serve one big drink in the middle of the table. So what happens if you pour in some of those wines in with the beer and stir in some tea? Do they like it? Of course not. You’ve created something hideous.
But… maybe the tea drinker doesn’t mind white wine. Maybe the beer drinker will be okay with wine if you serve it in a pint glass (that won’t end well…). Maybe you can promise the red wine drinker that you’ll do your best to make sure you have red wine in next time.
So when it comes to notes, you have to weigh up the considerations and the options. The two big ones are:
1) What is right for the story?
2) Who is bankrolling the whole thing?
The second one might not always be fun to consider but it is of vital importance. There is no point in keeping lots of people in the process happy if the one person who can pull the plug hates it. There will always be a hierarchy when it comes to notes. They do not all carry the same weight.
The hope is that story will always come first and that your notes will help you make it even better. When you have some tough decisions or notes that conflict, you have got to try to find solutions that people can agree on. But if that can’t happen, make sure you keep the right people happy.