Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Witnessing = Observation + Imagination.

When I encounter a particularly stubborn character, one that insists upon being a part of the story yet veils him or herself from me, I go through the side door. I peek through the window or slide down the chimney and tiptoe. I observe my character when they are not looking and wonder about things slightly off-center to the story:

Does my character scratch their nose when they sneeze? Is it loud or delicate? Do they like scrambled eggs? Fried or poached? What is their dog's name? their cats or do they have a boa constrictor or a guinea pig? What is the last thing they do before they go to sleep at night, the first thing they do in the morning when they wake? Do they look for four-leaf clovers, smell grass growing? Do they stop to pull the stamen out of a honey suckle flower and sip the nectar? Do they have holes in their shoes? If they do, do they still polish them?

I let these idiosyncrasies melt into their dialogue, dialect, habits, ticks, and many times discover that they play crucial roles in my narrative.


A Rare Occurrence

On rare occasions, I find myself without much to say. After reading what my fellow potatoes have written about how to develop characters, this is one of those times.

What can I add that will not seem redundant? Not much, other than to say that for characters, as in real life, flaws can sometimes be the most interesting aspect of a personality. Flaws not only make a character “round,” they also spur action and influence decision-making, which in turn alters what happens to a character. Emotional needs and wants also do this. Therefore, knowing what a character wants and needs (not always the same thing!) is not only fundamental to “understanding” him/her, but also to developing your plot.

One other tidbit: let your characters make mistakes. Making mistakes makes a character more human, more believable, and more sympathetic to readers.

My other advice? Learn from what my fellow potatoes have written on this blog, and incorporate their advice into your own work. Do this and you will be well on your way to developing more fully-realized characters.

I guess I did have something to say after all!



Ten years ago, when I started writing books for young children, I thought that creating a character would be a piece of cake. Unfortunately, most of my stories ended up like my cakes, sunken in the middle and crusty on the edges.

Now, my stories, unlike my cakes, have half a chance of being tasty. Revision is huge to me, and each viewing of the story makes me ask more questions about the character's reactions to the dilemma he or she faces. If it's not a true feeling, then it has to be tossed. This could change the whole setting, or beginning or ending, and then it's back to the drawing board.

I think that characters take their sweet time in revealing themselves to the writer. Deadlines and house payments mean nothing to them, and all the cursing and begging and praying in the world aren't going to make them any more cooperative.

The good news is that they eventually, with blood, sweat and tears on the author's part, give one a glimpse into their worlds, and that's where the magic happens.

P.S. - If we ever all get together for potato salad, please do not ask me to bake. Thank you!


When the character takes over...

After my first round of revisions with my editor at Delacorte Press, she suggested I add a journal that my character Annie would be keeping over the course of the summer while her father was overseas in the Air Force. This journal, a gift from Annie's father, would add a more definite connection for the two of them, as well as a means for adding more internalization of Annie's emotions after the death of her baby sister. I agreed that the father/daughter relationship was tenuous because her father was not an active character throughout most of the story, and I had every intention of following through with this advice.

However, every time I tried to add a reference to the journal or an actual journal entry, I could not get it right. The results were stilted or seemed to interrupt the flow of the story and did not fit Annie's natural voice. It wasn't until after a number of failed attempts that I had one of those "aha" moments and realized why Annie couldn't write down her thoughts in the journal as her mother drifted deeper and deeper into depression. If she wrote those words down on paper, she was afraid that's how things would stay--her mother forever lost in the depths of depression and the entire family grieving over the loss of the baby. Life would never be normal again.

Once I realized the reason, I was able to follow my character Annie's lead and work her resistance to the journal into the plot of the story. In the end, Annie adds tangible bits and pieces of her summer to the journal like a scrapbook--a curl of a wood shaving from the cradle Grandpa was making, a sliver of shiny mica from the creek bed, a loop of green thread from the sampler she weaves, a blackberry jam thumbprint from the mess she cleans up in the kitchen, etc.--as memories to tell her father. And when he finally returns, Annie knows that Daddy will understand why she had to wait and tell him everything in person.

My advice to new writers: Get to know your characters so well that you can trust them to take over and lead the way.