Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How to Get Readers to Invest in Your Characters

Our thriving local community of children's book writers has frequent "Boulder Connect" gatherings under the auspices of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. They are a chance for us to hear craft-focused talks by our members, share our writing goals and dreams, and socialize with people who share our passion for writing for children.

This past Saturday I was the speaker at one of these get-togethers. My topic: "Getting Readers to Invest in Your Characters." As always, I signed up to do this before I had a clear vision in mind of what I would actually say about the topic. It was a chance for me to explore this question, thoughtfully and mindfully, for myself. How DO writers get readers to invest in our characters? Especially given that our characters have to be flawed in some way, so there is room for them to grow and change in the course of the story? How can we make our characters initially flawed in a way that isn't a turn-off for readers, so that we root for them on their journey rather than being impatient with them for having to be on that journey in the first place?

Luckily for me, I could pose this question to the attendees and learn as much from them as they would learn from me. We started by talking about what draws us to people in real life. When we meet someone new, what makes us think we want to pursue a friendship with this person? (And note that few of us want to pursue friendships with people who are perfect, so a wide range of flaws are not deal-breakers here).

Here are some of the answers we shared.
We want to be be friends with people:
1. who are funny, interesting, and kind - preferably all three
2. who have some point of connection with us, large or small
3. who share themselves honestly with us, unmasking even "the ugly parts"
4. who may be at different stages of life experiences from us, so that we can learn from them.

We don't want to be friends with people:
1. who are jerks to others
2. who are arrogant or selfish
3. who are pessimists with negative energy (oh, but what about Eeyore? we decided that negative energy is okay if it comes in small doses, redeemed with humor)
4. whose deepest moral and political values are opposed to ours
5. who drive nice cars and brag about them!

Those seemed like pretty good lists to me.

We then looked at opening pages of a whole bunch of books I had brought with me to study how their authors created characters who immediately appeared as funny, interesting, and kind - and established some point of connection with us - and revealed themselves to us with refreshing candor - and gave us the hope that going along on their journey would illuminate some truths about the human experience that might be valuable to us as well.

My favorite was Jeannie Mobley's brand-new middle-grade novel, Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element, where we fall in love with Bobby Lee even as he announces his plan to move to Chicago to get a good start on his planned life of crime. How does she do this? By giving Bobby Lee a fresh, funny voice - and a startling goal we hadn't expected - and showing his vulnerability as an orphan who has just buried his mother - and even letting us share his impatience at being behind someone in line who is taking forever to count out change to buy her railway ticket, as the clock is ticking down for the departure of Bobby Lee's train.

Thanks to the brilliant and beautiful Kim Tomsic for hosting us, and to everyone who joined in the discussion, and to Jeannie Mobley for writing such a terrific book, from which we could learn so much.