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Archive for the category “Characters”

In Answer to Your Email

By Katrina Germein 

Dear Katrina,

I want to write a picture book but I want to do it my own way. I’ve read that picture books should have repetition and I think repetition is boring. I’ve read that publishers like stories where children solve their own problems but life’s not always like that, is it? I have a really good idea for a story about a girl who is lost in the bush and her grandpa saves her. Why can’t I write the book the way I want?


Budding Author


Dear Budding,

If you have a great idea for a story then I think you should just start writing and see where it takes you. It’s your work. Have fun with it. Write it the way you want and decide what you want to do with it later. Not all children’s stories have repetition and not all children’s stories place young characters at the centre of a solution. However, plenty do and I think this is why.


Children learn through repetition but not only that, it makes them feel safe. When you’re little you don’t always know what’s planned for the rest of the week, or even the rest of the day, and lots of decisions are made for you. It’s very comforting to read a book with a reoccurring pattern. If the story has a predictable text then the world in the story feels contained and manageable. Readers feel powerful because they can predict what’s happening next and join in. When children join in they actively engage with the story. Once children know parts of a book they feel successful and personally connected to the story.

Also, repeating a phrase or a sentence can improve the rhythm of a story and repetition of an idea at both the beginning and the end of a text can strengthen the circular nature of a story and create a satisfying ending.

Young Characters as Problem Solvers

If we consider an audience of child readers then of course a story is more exciting, interesting and satisfying when a child character solves the problem. It’s not always like real life but that’s part of the fun. Real life can be a little bit tiresome when adults constantly have all of the power. Children, like adults, often turn to literature for healthy escapism.

Stories that paint children as assertive and successful help to build resilience in children. They show children that everyone has some power over their own life and their own choices. They encourage problem solving and help children to understand that you don’t have to be big to be important.

Stories that show children in control allow children to dream. They transport kids into another world and work in tandem with a child’s imagination to show them that life’s possibilities are endless.

Stories that have children in control can be tricky to write because, well, life’s not always like that. Remember though, solving a problem doesn’t have to mean putting an end to global warming single-handed. (Think of The Lorax – the child has a seed to plant as part of the solution.) A problem may even still remain but the character has found a way of coping with it. Using the lost in the bush example, perhaps the child could think of a way to signal to Grandpa or cleverly stays safe until Grandpa arrives.

If you’re not sure what makes a good picture book try to remember your audience. What do they want to hear? Because writing a story for children is more than just writing what we want them to hear.




Katrina Germein is a best selling picture book author published internationally. Her first book, Big Rain Coming, has remained continuously in print for over ten years and her recent title My Dad Thinks He’s Funny was Highly Commended in the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. The sequel, My Dad STILL Thinks He’s Funny, was published in August 2013. Katrina is presenting as part of the YA/Writing for Children Bootcamp being held at SAWC 2-3 November.


One Woman’s Two and a Half Men (part two)

By Lia Weston

Continued on from a previous post

Nothing makes my heart sink like an ‘HILARIOUS LoL LoL OMG SO TRUE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ email forward. Guaranteed to fulfil none of the subject line promises, it tends to fall into one of two camps: ‘women are smart and funny, while men are crap at taking directions’ (if it’s from a woman) or ‘why beer is better than a woman’ (if it’s from a man). Thinking of unleashing your own home-grown tellin’-it-like-it-is just-sayin’-insert-painful-and-dated-cliché-here comedy on the world? Then I beg of you: don’t tell gender-based jokes. Look around you. ‘Life coach’ is considered a legitimate career choice, Tony Abbott leads a political party and doggles exist: we live in a very odd world. Surely ‘My husband couldn’t find the milk in the fridge with a map and a sign that says, “Here Be Milk” ’ is not your A-Grade material. While we’re talking clichés, the following phrases should also be struck from your lexicon forever: talk to the hand; I don’t think so; you go, girl!; go [insert name], go [repeat name]; actually, any variant with ‘go’ in it.  (And if you’re someone who forwards anything with ‘LoL’ in the subject line, please stop. Your friends may never admit it, but they’re currently deleting your emails without reading them.)

Comedy is not desperate for your approval, and the reason why most amateur stand-up is singularly awful to watch is because the person on stage is dying for you to laugh. ‘I’m wacky! Check out my funky hair! Please, love me! Wait – don’t leave! Did I tell you the thing about how a beer is better than a women?’ It’s the same with the written word. We’ve all seen examples of a potentially perfect punchline ruined by lumpy, heavy-handedness. It’s like riding a wooden cart along a bridge and watching pieces of it fall off, ricocheting into the crevasse below. Throwing more stuff at it (bigger reactions, another layer of hilarity) doesn’t work. ‘Mayday!  Mayday!’ the reader thinks. ‘We’re going down!’ Yes, you are, and you’re taking everyone with you. Do not over-explain the joke. Actually, don’t explain the joke at all if you can avoid it. Comedy that goes overboard appeals to five-year-olds and the kind of people who line up to see Big Mama’s House IV: Still Milking A Dead Horse. Presumably, neither of these people are your target audience. Good comedy requires a delicate touch. (I won’t say ‘subtle’ here, as not all comedy is subtle. Again, an essay for another time.) Convoluted circumstances where you force your punchline into existence don’t work. If your humour is dry – in addition to Bryson and Austen, Stephen Fry, Garrison Keilor and Lisa Lutz are very good examples of this style – it’s always better to pull back. Clever humour is organic, and the best kind sneaks up into the work and sucker-punches you. (There’s that violence thing again.) Similarly, use metaphors and similes sparingly. Lately, I’ve been finding writers who seem to have only just stumbled upon the power of the simile and are so excited by it that they’ll use it as a comedic crutch again and again and again.  … like (something) on acid!  … like (celebrity) on a bender! (Though not a book, pick up any issue of Women’s Health and choose a page at random; I can almost guarantee there’ll be one on there.) When used correctly, a well-chosen metaphor can be devastating. Over-use them, however, and your reader will think they’re the only weapon in your arsenal. Your work will be devalued as a result.

Finding your own voice is really important.Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s deeply irritating if all you can be is a pale copy of the original. Everyone has influences that shape and form their style – your job is to take the best aspects from yours and marry them with your individual take on life. As a character trait, I believe optimism is helpful to comedians (which is odd, seeing as so many of us suffer from depression); the ability to see the funny side in pretty much anything is a boon to the comedic writing process. The mantra, which has gotten me through many difficult moments, is that an awful day today will make an excellent anecdote tomorrow. The trick, of course, is to work out which anecdotes people actually want to hear about, choose your words very carefully, and deliver the joke without expecting applause. Remember: no one likes comedy that begs. These notes are
just a rough guide to what I’ve personally found works – and, more importantly I think, what doesn’t work – in my own pieces. In the end, all I can write is something that makes me laugh, and if someone else finds it funny, that’s a bonus. Plus, there’s nothing more gratifying than someone telling you that you’re funnier than Big Mama’s House. Praise I’ll take to the grave.

Lia Weston broke the three rules of getting published when her un-agented first- ever novel, The Fortunes of Ruby White, was pulled out of the slush pile and published by Simon & Schuster in 2010. She won the Australian Literature Review’s 2011 Epistolary partnership competition and has had her short stories featured in several anthologies. She also writes a monthly blog for the website Writing Novels in Australia. Currently working on her second novel, Lia runs a bicycle shop by day and works as a freelance editor by night. Lia will be presenting as part of the Fiction Bootcamp in December.

This article was originally published in Southern Write in June 2011 and reposted with the author’s permission.


What’s in a Name? (part two)

By Malcolm Walker

Continued on from this previous post 

…The psychological motivation of characters can also have a bearing when thinking up names. If a particular character is serious or frivolous, sensitive or uncaring, happy or sad, does the name you settle upon reflect or enhance these traits or does it work against the grain? Of course, if done wisely or with flair, such counterpoint can prove interesting. Then there are the ‘good’ characters. In the naming department these are the ones I often struggle with longest. I find the unscrupulous and the downright villainous a lot more entertaining when it comes to Christening rites. From A Christmas Carol, Dickens has given us that wonderful word ‘Scrooge’; purloined in turn by Walt Disney for one of his ducks.  quote

The film critic Roger Ebert said a ‘film is only as good as its villain’, a statement that surely fits as well with novels. Do the bad and the ugly necessarily need names that fit? Tolkien knew his European history when he named Gollum after the Golem of Prague, a creature created and shaped from clay in much the way that the ring moulds Tolkien’s embittered misshapen creature. And Rowling isn’t far behind with her wonderful creation Draco Malfoy, with its connection to the Athenian law-giver, who gave us the word draconian, plus there’s the suggestion of the serpent, while with a slight reshaping his surname can mean mal foi, literally ‘bad faith’ in French.

We live in politically correct times. Enid Blyton’s golliwogs seemed harmless enough in the 40s and 50s but wouldn’t scrape past even the most dubious editor these days. One doubts that Ian Fleming’s character Pussy Galore, even with all of the Bond books’ flagrantly sexist connotations, would make it into print today. Class, ethnicity and indigenous cultures are three tricky areas where the generation of characters’ name should be embarked upon with caution. It’s all too easy to stereotype, and names can add to this.

Then there’s the use of real people’s names, both the dead and the living, although the latter may be fraught with the possibility of a court action. Sometimes, if this is not carefully done or if the context is not immediately apparent, this can look like name-dropping. But with the rise of faction it seems clear that this trend will continue. It’s hard to imagine Mr Darwin’s Shooter without a passing mention of the man himself or Atwood’s eponymous protagonist Grace Marks in Alias Grace? Of course in the case of these two novels the likelihood of the author being sued were nonexistent.

So where else can we find names? Well, there’s always the obituary column which, if your novel is set locally, can provide some excellent possibilities. If you have a dog to walk or a baby in a pusher the local cemetery can be quite useful, in particular it gives dates and shows how names come in and out of fashion. There are plenty of baby name generators on the web, most of which give meanings (although there can be some interesting discrepancies between sites). Some authors like the meaning of the name to reflect either the character or the situation.

To my utmost surprise I found out while researching this article that there are random online name generators. Most are attuned to gamers’ or fantasy writers’ needs but there are one or two that may be useful, although what they produce did appear to be very random. It seems a fairly lazy way of going about things and I couldn’t find an online generator that allowed you to type in a theme or a characteristic. No doubt there’s one out there but by that time my patience had worn thin. Patience – now there’s a name.

While changing a name later isn’t necessarily problematic, it is all too easy to get stuck with an earlier version when you’re writing that next draft. You can think, ‘Oh, it’s just a draft’ but then time passes and your name’s still sitting there. Sometimes one seems all too familiar and it becomes difficult to think past it to something new.

A character’s name, no matter how appropriate or carefully chosen, isn’t going to make up for flimsy writing, bad grammar or poor characterisation. Nor will it rescue you from poor storytelling or clumsy plotting. While naming a fictional character is perhaps not as demanding as naming a child, it still requires some preliminary thought and research; after all it may, if you’re talented or lucky, outlast you the author. And, if you’re like me, you’ll probably still agonise over getting it right. I’m told cold, salted water is quite good for getting blood out of clothing.

What’s in a Name? (part one)

Shakespeare asks, ‘What’s in a name?’ and answers by telling us roses smell sweet whatever they are called. But Tim Winton’s character Rose Pickles out of Cloudstreet is anything but sweet: her character comes fully armed with thorns for most of the story – even though she softens towards the end of the story. The name Rose comes with the complete do-it-yourself kit of connotations, both personal and public: Tokyo Rose has an entirely different ring to Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, and then there was that girl called Rose I sat next to in high school, who picked her nose and used the underside of the desk as … well, let’s not go there.

And what of the Winton’s Lambs, the godfearing family next door in Cloudstreet, with their two sons Fish and Quick? What magical names. But then Winton’s novel is often given the genre tag ‘magic realism’. Probably one of the best known magic realist texts is One Hundred Years of Solitude with the infamous Colonel Aureliano Buendia, whom Garcia Marquez has begin his fictional journey with the words, ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad…’ An interesting first line given Colonel Beundia’s unsavoury predicament and that the literal translation of Beundia from Spanish to English is ‘good day’. Winton uses ‘g’day’ a lot in Cloudstreet but I’ve yet to come across a character in an Australian novel named Gidday, although somewhere out there there’s surely room for one. I guess some things simply don’t translate. So how exactly do we as writers go about choosing names and how difficult can it be?

As a writer, if you’re anything like me, finding fictional names can be a little like Oscar Wilde’s attitude to blood-sports – well, my definition of it anyway – the unpronounceable in pursuit of the untenable, because as another author, whose name I forget, once said of the writing process, ‘Just slap your belly up against the desk … and wait for beads of blood to form on your forehead.’ Finding names that are suitable can be a little like that. I tend to dive in and regret my choices later.

But names matter, even in high-end literary fiction: how appropriate to their respective narrative  journeys are the names of Stephen Dedalus from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird? And while Humbert Humbert hasn’t passed into the lexicon, Lolita certainly has. A good name may outlast its original context: Orwell’s 1984 and the omniscient character Big Brother is my favourite to date, while the name of Winston Smith, the hero of the novel, may well be forgotten in time.

If you’re writing literary fiction or realism then perhaps names aren’t quite so important. Maybe you can get by with something common-or-garden, something prosaic. But while the reader may be more accepting, the author still has the problem of finding a name that gels with wherever they are taking that character. The average novel requires a couple of days to read; to write one may take years and the author has to live with that character and their name for the entire journey. It should have the ring of truth about it.

The area where naming a character comes into its own is probably genre fiction. If you’re writing parody or satire or humour then pushing the boundaries for the readership with some out-there quirky names is reasonable. There’s the wonderful Captain Major Major in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, who’s doing okay until he’s promoted. A fictional character with the handle Major Major Major is really making a statement in itself. Snowball and Napoleon in Animal Farm are a little less obvious, but only marginally. Then there’s Cold Comfort Farm – sorry, but I appear to be on a bit of an agricultural bender here – a comic novel by Stella Gibbons which parodies D H Lawrence and which has the unforgettable characters of Ada Doom, the matriarch who saw ‘something nasty in the woodshed’, and the handsome Seth Starkadder, who despite his bucolic roots is destined for Hollywood. Add to that location – the village of Howling – and the reader knows exactly what to expect. With humorous and satirical writing the reader allows a certain amount of latitude. Other genres may require a lighter touch and a more subtle approach.

I’ve found the White Pages quite useful for surnames, especially when I’m looking for something unusual that might match a particular character or personality trait. Truth is stranger than fiction and a quick troll through the telephone directory can show just how many unusual names are out there. Having just performed this exercise, I came up with the following without too much difficulty – Dohnt, Hext, Wix, Crizzle, Leach and Renard – all of which are suggestive, either though onomatopoeia, spelling or association, of various human foibles or characteristics. I find this – dare I say it – reference work useful for checking to see if an unusual surname I’ve come up with actually exists. I’m often taken aback as to how close a match I find.

But the danger here might be in making the name too unusual and drawing the reader’s attention to it. It depends on whether you want to foreground the name. Unlike surnames, given names drop in and out of favour and carry historical or generational overtones, so if you’re writing historical fiction or faction it’s important to do a little research. A postwar character by the name of Duane or Dakota lacks authenticity. With children’s and young adult works, fantasy, science-fiction and crime or romance writing names can matter, but it then becomes a trade-off between the startlingly obvious and drawing too much attention away from the narrative flow, unless that is your purpose. A sure–fire way to put a reader off your prose is to use names inappropriately.

To be continued… 

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