Published July 11, 2011
Character Design , Illustration , Literary Festival , Squish Rabbit , Writing
Tags: character design, Illustration, illustration workshop, Immanuel Lutheran College, little monsters, picture book, Squish Rabbit, visual storytelling, Voices on the Coast, Writing, writing for children, Writing Workshop
This was my first year at Voices on the Coast, where I ran several different kinds of workshops with both primary and secondary students. My favourite part of these kind of events is meeting the kids and teens, as they’re funny and inspiring and so much more clever than I was at their age. Here are some of the drawings we did together in the primary school workshops…
Squishy Speech Bubbles
In this session I talked about how I tell my stories visually. We discussed emotion, body language, facial expression and a visual storytelling method I use in Squish Rabbit: pictorial speech bubbles. In this activity I had the kids brainstorm what picture we could draw in the speech bubble to let a reader know that Squish is hungry. There were some great creative suggestions, including tacos, sushi, pancakes and guacamole. We also discussed what each food would tell us about the kind of rabbit Squish is (ie. sushi might tell us he is Japanese, or well travelled, or is quite adventurous for a small rabbit).
We then chose one food to draw together – in the above class we chose a burger and the kids suggested all kinds of things to fill it with (clearly, we had to sneak in a carrot). We then worked on making it look extra tasty so the reader would really empathise with Squish and feel his hunger – notice the smell wafting, the sesame seeds and the big bite mark.
In this session I talked all about characterisation – how I create my characters, the research involved and the drawing process. I used the example of a picture book of mine called ‘Monster Music’, where I had to create a whole horde of little monsters. In coming up with the characters, I actually drew about 100 different monsters before deciding on which ones to use in the book. In order to make sure they all looked like they belonged together and ensure they weren’t too scary (the story is more playful) I ended up basing each character on an animal and then adapting it. After demonstrating this I got the class to choose an animal to base our monster on.
The above class chose a bird, so together we brainstormed a couple of features unique to birds in which we’d keep – you can see they chose a beak, wings, feathers and claws. Next comes my favourite bit – we worked together to monster-ify our bird. The kids came up with all sorts of crazy ideas to make sure our character was really monster-like (the girls often want to keep their monsters cute, but the boys are quick to add fangs and blood). And did anyone notice the bunny ears on my monster? It actually wasn’t my idea!
The kids were a blast, and I wish I could show you all the zany foods and monsters they created. Or maybe instead I’ll just borrow some of their clever ideas for my next book… mwa ha ha <evil artist laugh>.
Published November 20, 2009
Characterisation , Writing
Tags: books, character design, character profiles, Characterisation, characters, Editing, first drafts, Plotting, second drafts, voice, Writing, writing for children
I don’t mean literally – no need to go putting your characters on a high carb diet – but a lovely blog reader recently asked how I develop my protagonists, and I find the process is a lot like fattening them up. When starting out you begin with just bones – the bare outline of your main character. Through time, research and writing you start to build up their flesh, and in the final stages you add quirks and traits that lay their skin down over top, leaving you with a 3D living breathing character. But how do I get there?
- I often begin with a small kernel of knowledge about my main character. Something that’s important to them. The hint of their voice or personality. A snippet of conversation. A glimpse of how they look or how others see them. Like any story, it starts small, but you have to begin somewhere
- Help the bones to grow: I use my natural writer’s curiosity to ask question after question. Who is this person? Why are they important to this story? What about them and their needs could drive a whole novel towards its end? Where do they come from and where will they go? The questions start out big, but become more specific as the story narrows down
- First draft: once I know enough about my character and their story, I begin the first draft. That’s when I figure out how little I really knew…
- I only truly begin to understand my main character once I have sat with them through an entire draft, watching the way they speak and move and react to the world. By the end of it I have a more through understanding of them, and need to go back in draft two to make sure they’re acting consistently
- At this point I also make sure that the person I want my character to be isn’t inhibiting who they actually are. As writers we need to let them be their own person, even if they do things we would never do
- Character profiles: before draft two I use a detailed set of questions to plumb the depths of my character’s personality, from their childhood through to their desires, strengths and weaknesses
- Character sketches: as an illustrator I draw these myself, but others I know find magazine images of people who perfectly capture the look they’re after. This is important not only to make sure you describe your character consistently, but to ensure you’re conveying their personality through their physical appearance – how they stand, hold themselves, dress etc.
- The skin: the nitty gritty details that make us all individual. For me these traits develop over time, after being with my character for several drafts
- Encourage the details: I do this by imagining my character – watching them move around, putting them in various situations, wondering how they would react to something joyous or uncomfortable or during a confrontation. As I walk around day to day, I wonder how my character would react to the situations I face, or what they would do in place of characters on TV
- Collect foibles: writers are great people watchers. I’ve always been fascinated by the quirks people around me have – the words they use, the way they speak, the ticks and mannerisms that make them unique, the walk that means you recognise them from behind. If you can give your character unique mannerisms, they’ll suddenly become very real
It’s easy to get intimidated after reading a brilliant book with characters so real you wish you knew them. But don’t feel you have to know everything about your main character before you start writing. It’s all about layering. All writers layer, adding more character details with each draft. Characters will always begin as bones, mere shadows of who they will become. I’m currently at the ‘skin’ stage of a middle-grade adventure novel, and certain minor characters are only just starting to feel real rather than stereotyped. In a few more layers it will be ready.
What techniques do others use to develop character?