Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Secrets of Kidlit: The Relevance of Things



Everybody has things. Important things, useful things, and the ordinary stuff we don’t think about unless it gets lost. But what things do we give to our fictional characters and how much attention should we pay to them? What do their possessions say about them? And how do we ensure that when a character uses an important tool or skill, it feels organic and momentous to the story? It is important to consider how your character’s belongings make your story sound authentic.

Let’s start with the ordinary things. Your character is going to need clothes and eating utensils and all the things that are part of everyday life. However, it is important that these everyday things are appropriate to his or her character and setting. For example, think about handing your character a hot drink. Does your character insist on drinking her tea out of a bone china teacup, or does an earthenware mug make her happy? Does your character run errands while sipping coffee from a Starbucks paper cup? Or from an indie coffee shop? Perhaps your story takes place in Japan and your characters drink from a tea bowl. A reader can get many clues about your character just by how she drinks her coffee or tea. These little artifacts are important to setting and characterization, but do not spend a lot of time describing them. Use them as a matter of course, because that is how your main character sees them. Remember that a character who lives in the middle ages would not marvel at the trencher he or she is eating out of.

Useful artifacts are important to your story because they either propel the character forward or hold him back. Forward moving objects help your character navigate his journey and/or challenge him. They tend to be things like a half of a locket, a treasure map, or a lucky slingshot. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling, one of the useful objects is the invisibility cloak. It allows Harry to explore the castle and gain the knowledge he’ll need later to defeat Professor Quirrel and Voldemort.

Another way these weighty objects propel the character forward is by using them in the “call to adventure” scene. Famous examples include: Luke Skywalker receiving his father’s lightsaber, Elizabeth Swan stealing the pirate medallion, Lucy Pevensie hiding in the wardrobe, and Frodo Baggins inheriting Sauron’s Ring. All of these objects lead the main characters on an unexpected journey.

Backward moving objects frustrates your character by making it harder to obtain their goal. This could be a negative prophesy, a promise, or a physical ailment. A classic example is Hazel Grace’s oxygen tank in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green. The tank itself holds her back only a little, but it’s a clear representation of what makes her goals seem unobtainable: her cancer. In A NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly, the hero is held back by the promise she made to her dying mother that she would never leave her family - even though she wants to college in New York City.

Whether the object moves the character forward or backward, it is important enough to stick around. Your character will not take this object for granted, therefore they will have an emotional response towards it. They may revere it or loath it, fear it or feel empowered by it. And the emotions can change. Just ask Frodo Baggins.

The most important object of the book is the skill, knowledge, and/or weapon that your hero uses to defeat the villain. This item must show up at least twice before the story’s climatic scene. The reader will feel cheated if a new weapon suddenly turns up at the big show down. Similarly, a weapon that has been used multiple times before defeating the villain often falls flat. To give this object the impact it needs, your character should struggle to use it. The struggle can be physical, mental, or moral, but the character must try and fail. Or achieve only a partial success. This ensures that both the reader and the character will arrive at the final showdown tense and full of doubt. Will the hero master the power or weapon in time? Probably not at first, but then he or she finds the strength or faith or knowledge to use the object at its full power (at last!) and defeats the villain.


2 comments:

  1. A fun thing-oriented writing prompt I use with kids: your character always carries something in his/her/its pocket. What is it? Where did your character get it, and why is it so special? Off we go!

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    Replies
    1. So fun! I'd love to know what the kids choose.

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