Friday, March 29, 2013

Character - The Essence of a Man.....and Woman

Character, the most important element in a story, either a children's book or an adult novel, is the vital pull that carries a reader into and through the story. If we don't care about the character, we don't care about the book's story.

Following up on the conversation on the blog that Judy had here with Julie at her last posting, "Research and Cheese...", Judy mentioned that she found reading the books that her adult book club chooses and focusing on how they treat character, and their characters, to be very helpful in writing books for children. Judy said that many novels delve into details of description and don't spend enough time on development and presentation of character.

Good description is obviously needed and skillful plotting is essential but without characters that live and breathe on the pages there is no story.

Recently my book club read......

two debut novels which are excellent and that focus directly and effectively on character.

THE IMPERFECTIONISTS by Tom Rachman depicts the life at an English speaking paper in Rome in the second half of the 20th century. The book is filled with the descriptive smell of ink and the buzz of a busy newsroom before newer technology had appeared. The setting of Rome with expats working to meet deadlines was great, but the author's approach of focusing each chapter on a different member of the staff and their personal life and foibles, was tremendous. He used character as his main thrust.

In RULES OF CIVILITY, another debut novel by Amor Towles, character is front and center in a heady, exciting Manhattan of 1938 as the main characters of the novel strive for their goals while swinging through the city's nightlife. So intent is the reader on the central figures that when a twist reveals a very different aspect of the character of some of the principle actors there is surprise and shock.

Both novels have unique settings, but it is their characters that rivet the reader to the page.

Building characters in children's books is as important, whether the character is a child of four in an early PB, a natural wonder in a non-fiction book, or the teenage heroine in a YA novel. Continued reading of good work will help us writers find the essence of character.


  1. I didn't really say adult novels don't spend enough time on development and presentation of character. I said I thought there too many books where it seemed description was more important than story and details more important than character. I feel this way, not because not enough time is spent on developing character, but rather that too much time is spent on unnecessary description and detail, and it gets in the way of story and character. I find that I skip over many more sections of adult novels over young adult novels.

    But that is me. I am very much a get-to-the-point person and writer.

  2. Building great characters is definitely important. I think that is the problem with a picture book manuscript I am working on right now. It has a cute plot, but the characters feel very cardboard... replaceable is probably the best word for it. There is nothing particularly special about them. Yes! That's it! Now I'm off to see if this realization can help inspire some character revisions!

  3. Funny, I've also been working on deepening the characters in my WIP. I decided to start the novel at an earlier point in the story than I was originally planning, before a lot of the fantasy action takes place, and it has forced me to flesh out the relationships between the characters. I'm drawing on some painful autobiographical material for those relationships but if it strengthens the story, it will be worth it.