Sing, fish, sing! Creating quirky characters in fiction

Hello ducksters! This week in class we looked at character. It’s a HUGE topic. Everyone had loads to say, especially me. I didn’t get through half the material I wanted to cover. I didn’t even have time to eat a cupcake. And there were cupcakes. And mini muffins. Lemon butter biscuits. Homemade banana bread. Hold on. What I mean to say is we didn’t do all the work. But we did WRITE. Yes indeedy. And some funny characters joined us in the classroom, including a partying cockroach (spinning out on sugar), a sulky ten-year-old boy, a girl making a sculpture from chewing gum and hairspray, and a bunch of giggling gerties at a sleepover. Next week we’ll go even further into character. Meantime, the following is an extract from the course notes (and from a talk I gave at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore). I hope these notes help you on your quest to write IRRESISTIBLE characters. Man oh man, it’s a labour of love.

Week Two

Girl & Duck, Writing Books for Children

Who is your story about?

The options are limitless especially when writing for kids. In their world, lonely fish can sing Spanish love songs and stuffy garden gnomes become Great Explorers. Quirky characters capture hearts and bring our stories to life. By the end of this class we will have chosen some names for our characters. Over the next week we write freefall about these characters. We will not even THINK about plans or plots or character biographies. We will be Merry Scribblers—trusting the process, at ease with the mess.



From Sing, Pepi, Sing! Illustrated by Gus Gordon.

All my work is character driven. Whether the stories are whimsical fantasies such as Sing, Pepi, Sing! or contemporary melodramas such as the Crystal Bay series, all my stories begin with a character and develop from there.

Some writers begin with plot. Some begin with a situation, a setting or an issue. I begin with one solitary character. It is always this character  who determines the voice of my story then leads me into the action. Character and voice go hand in hand for me. I can’t move forward until I have them in place, until I am at least partly happy with them. Once that happens, other characters turn up and they pull toward them plot, drama, comedy, pathos, sometimes even a dash of horror.  One character wanders into the theatre of my mind and, so long as I’m prepared to spend time with that character, I soon discover an entire support cast waiting in the wings.

Norman Does Nothing. Told from the perspective of a garden gnome. Illustrated by Andrew Joyner.

Characters drive fiction. When the events in our stories have long been forgotten it is the characters that will live on. Characters may be weak, strong, despicable. Even boring. But they must never be props that we move about like store dummies. At some point we have to put aside our own agenda and let our characters breathe. To some extent they must develop a will of their own. And eventually they must act. Even if it’s just to get up and take a peek out the window. Seriously. Anyone could be outside that window…


Oh, the drama of it all!

Characters who refuse to act are of no use in fiction. As James N. Frey says, ‘Create all the wimps you want, they can develop into giant killers and dragon slayers, but such characters won’t grow unless that take actions and engage in conflict.’

Put another way, our characters must confront some kind of opposition. Not necessarily conflict but there must be opposition, external or internal, in order for there to be drama. Characters who are continually acted upon by external forces, who lack drive, are impossible to sympathise with. This applies to all fiction but it’s more of a problem in children’s fiction. There’s a tendency among aspiring children’s authors to have others (ie adults or circumstances) solve their protagonist’s problems. I saw this over and over again when I was a children’s book editor, reading (and weeping with frustration) over unsolicited manuscripts. We must always be sure that our main character has agency. If not, we need to rewrite with the intention of bringing our hero forward. Children’s authors are always coming up with new and original ways to bump off parents—or in the very least, lock them in the cupboard. This is because absent (or inept or troubled or preoccupied or GHASTLY) parents provide more opportunities for the kids in our stories to shine.

retro indieIf our hero won’t come to the forefront, if our hero lacks the spark to take charge, we might have to ditch our hero and start afresh. We’ve gotta get harsh! Remember, kids want to read about other children who are brave, resourceful and independent despite their circumstances and sometimes despite their natural proclivities. I’m not saying all our girls should be ‘Mighty Girls’ and all our boys heroic sensitive new age guys. That’s boring. And insincere. What I am saying is there needs to be character growth, even if it appears to be tiny. A shy, timid girl finally sticks up for herself—or better still, she sticks up for someone else. Yay!  Faced with an unexpected challenge, a conceited smart alec becomes self-reflective, (even if only for a moment). Yay again! This is the kind of thing readers want to see and the type of characters kids enjoy cheering on. Our readers are not perfect, so why should our characters be shining role models breezing through life with all the answers at their fingertips? That’s blah. We all learn way more from ‘flawed’ characters. And, I would suggest, see more of ourselves in them.

Take your time. I’ll say it many times…

The same can be said for all our characters, not just our heroes. For example, The Bully must never wander into the playground wearing a pointy hat that says, The Bully. They must never charge into the story, do their bullying, then retreat. Our characters must be way more rounded than that. We have to understand their backstory, have a handle on their inner life, for them to be convincing.

If our characters have not developed a will of their own, if they are not occasionally surprising us with their actions or thoughts,  it’s usually because we haven’t spent enough time with them. They are just not fully developed. Again, the best way to give all our characters extra depth is to rewrite. It might seem like a drag. But it’s worth it. Every time we plunge back in we discover more. I rewrite over and over. And I’m not referring to drafting. I’m referring to tinkering, fine tuning, adding jokes, raising the stakes, silencing some characters, merging some into composites, pushing others into the limelight. This happened with Olive in Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children. My editor wanted to leave Olive on the cutting room floor. But I was attached to her. In my heart I knew she had a part to play. I did another rewrite. I pulled her forward and developed her small role carefully. She went on to lead one of the book’s most poignant scenes. And, might I add, played a strategic role in helping the orphans escape. I loved Olive. LOVED. I was so grateful that my editor’s offhand comments had pushed me to spend more time with her.

This is just one example from many. As a writer we are directing, choreographing, keeping an eye on who’s loitering, who’s not pulling their weight, who’s reluctant to let their light shine, who’s stomping about trying to take over. And, WHO IS MADE OF CARDBOARD. Hmmm?

Time. I’ll say it again, Sam!

We must spend time with our characters. That’s when they develop quirks and foibles and idiosyncrasies and we get a clearer understanding of where they fit into our story world. I love J K Rowling’s description of how Harry Potter came to her fully formed. Perhaps she meant that he was fully formed physically, with the scar and the NHS specs. Or perhaps she meant that he strolled in with his backstory in place, his fears, his foibles, his heartbreak all laid bare. I’m not sure. Whatever the truth, I find this anecdote fascinating — and dangerously seductive. Sadly it has never happened that way for me. All the characters in my books came to me as a dim shape; a fleeting figure like a new neighbour glimpsed through the venetian blinds. And like a new neighbour my characters have only revealed themselves over time and endless cups of tea.

BackcoverPepi began when my publisher at Penguin said, ‘Forget puppies and unicorns, write me a story about an unusual animal.’ I chose an axolotl because I had met one in a Brisbane restaurant twenty years earlier and thought it was hilarious (the fish, not the restaurant). That’s all. That was my starting point. Tensy Farlow was incredibly reticent. I had no clue who she was until about 40,000 words into the story. She revealed herself slowly. She revealed herself over the course of years. At times it was agonizing. I gave up constantly. But something always pulled me back to that story. And that something was the characters. I fell in love with them. In the end I wanted to spend time with them, I looked forward to it. I remember scribbling in my notebook while my kids were having swimming lessons. Or while they were rolling about on aikido mats. What a diligent mother I was, sitting in the stands, nose in my writing book. But I had to know—where is this story headed, how is it all going to end? And besides, my kids were being supervised…

Yes, but what colour are their eyes? Who cares!

Details, odd and unexpected, will make our characters come alive. How they walk, the texture of their skin, whether they smell like cough medicine. However, physical characteristics are only a small part of character. Readers care less about the colour of our character’s eyes and much more about what our character is doing, thinking, saying.

Their psychological make-up, how they interpret the world, how they relate to others, to situations and dilemmas will breathe life into our creations and keep our readers turning the pages. As I mentioned in week one, when I wrote the first chapter of Truly Tan I was pleased but not…in love. I wondered if I could summon the energy to finish a book when I was only superficially interested in the protagonist. I stewed for days. Then I sat down and wrote a diary entry in the first person, in Tan’s voice not mine. Suddenly the story popped. I had a handle on Tan, on her idiosyncratic way of speaking and her cheeky sense of humour. I was excited and I knew that writing about her was going to be a joy. The Truly Tan books have been a gift. But the gift came through slowly. With patience and perseverance. As Tan would say, I truly mean that!

Tan Callahan. Illustrated by Claire Robertson.

Our characters must be strong, ie they must be strongly realized. Nearly everything else can be fixed or smoothed out but flimsy characters will never get our work read. They will never captivate a jaded editor. They will never engage an agent who has hundreds of other manuscripts to go through. When writing fiction, our characters deserve all your attention, all our commitment. Our characters are our best friends and should be treated as such. We must develop a deep understanding of them then share that understanding with confidence and enthusiasm. That way everyone has a good time. Especially our readers.




Reading extracts for tonight’s class:

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo

The Twits, Roald Dahl.

Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children, Jen Storer

Inkheart, Cornelia Funke

You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum, Andy Stanton

‘Les’, Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems, 1954 -1978, Bruce Dawe


8 Replies to “Sing, fish, sing! Creating quirky characters in fiction”

  1. Dear Jen, thank you for your wonderful posts. Living in central Vic I’m always missing out on great wordy things in Melbourne. It’s very generous of you to share your knowledge here. Much appreciated!

    1. What a lovely note to receive. Thank you so much, Lauren. Words like yours are so encouraging. Our community grows further with every post and it’s wonderful. Thank you for joining us!

  2. Hi Jen, so generous of you to share all this on your blog. I will be taking it all in as I am currently trying to learn about storytelling and books and more. Thanks so much.

    1. You are more than welcome, Corinne! Thank you so much for subscribing. Loads more stuff coming. I had a look at your blog. Gorgeous! I thought i knew your name. Perhaps you were a Sparker? I see you’re doing a course with Jane, too. We’re kindred spirits! 😉

      1. Yes, I was a Sparker. Absolutely, we’re kindred spirits. Thanks for the kind words for my blog. I’m looking forward to what you will be posting. See you!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
Verified by MonsterInsights