Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
I’m a big fan of color. Maybe it’s the art lover in me, but I can’t stand boring compositions. A little passionate red, cool and withdrawn blue, yellow to energize, purple to pacify. My stories are always full of color. I design them that way so I don’t get bored in the telling. Attention span of a cocker spaniel, I assure you. I figure if I’m getting bored, my readers don’t stand a chance.
In this edition of Craft and Practice, we’ll look at colorful characters. Where do they come from? How can we more easily create them? Let’s assume you find them preferable to stock characters that are functional but not especially inspired. I’m here to tell you that you don’t need much in terms of preparation. Outlines, character sheets, written histories, throw them all out for the time being. The trick here is to open yourself up, to trust your instincts and your ability to create something sort of magical and unique to your abilities, to your point of view. It’s not so much that preparation can hamper our ideas or dampen our expression of them. This is true some of the time, but not always. It’s more that the tighter we constrict our creativity―that’s constrict rather than channel; one is suppressive by nature and the other is purposefully expressive―the more likely we are to produce wooden and inflexible components.
Your characters don’t want to be inflexible. Trust me on this. They long to be unpredictable, passionate, full of life. Some writers like to work with a net. Perfectly understandable. It’s cleaner and in some sense easier. But I’d like you to consider the possibility that extra work at the conclusion of a writing project is worth more in the long run than an equivalent amount of preparation. The final product is bound to be less like everyone else’s stories and more like your own, and that’s a win in my book.
Let’s run a brief exercise to illustrate the point. Character A asks Character B for something to drink. Character A doesn’t visit other people’s homes very often, so the request doesn’t seem rude or presumptuous. Character B is a friendly sort, charitable in all the ways it matters, and if it’s possible to provide hospitality and comfort to Character A, then that’s precisely what Character B will do. Outcome: Character A gets to drink. Huzzah!
Notice that in just a few brief character descriptions, I’ve told you everything you need to know in order to enjoy the scene. Do you care what Character A’s first car was? Not unless it has direct bearing on the scene at hand. Do you care if your protagonist prefers Pizza Hut to Domino’s? Not as such, because they’re not eating right now. They’re, you know, drinking. What if childhood trauma involving fruit punch makes them thirstier than the average beverage enthusiast? I mean, that may be pertinent information. Put it in and see how it reads. In this way, story serves character, not the other way around. These imaginary folks living rent-free in your head, they might change their spots entirely by the time you’ve written THE END. In fact, we sort of need them to. It’d be damn boring if they didn’t. I’m saying the desired effect is best achieved organically. Think about your standard rising action chart
Notice the trajectory, one smooth line shot straight toward a conclusion. Don’t design your plot or your characters in this manner. Just don’t do it. Trust me, that line reads a whole lot better when it’s perforated, imbalanced, full of ups and downs, at last arriving at that ultimate destination. In real life, human beings do not proceed along a straight trajectory. Great actors know this. They understand innately to respond to moments as they come. One foot in front of the other, not all the feet all over the world all at once.
Imagine going onstage with a dozen pages of notes stapled to your forehead. This scene should be easier to perform because you have at your disposal so much background information. Right? Wrong? Yes? No? How’s your performance? Natural or constricted? I mean really, is that stuff helpful, or is it dead weight? A given scene tells me I should be afraid of snakes. The next one tells me I’m falling in love with someone who owns a lot of snakes. The core of my character remains, but the dictates of motivation, action, and reaction are all over the map. Am I in love with snakes and afraid of love? No, of course not. My name is Character A, and I’ve just been bitten by a rattler. See? No preplanning required.
Here’s another classic scenario for you to consider. You can night drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas without ever seeing further ahead than the thirty feet of illumination provided by your headlights. The road is there, it promises to deposit you at your destination, but even it has no idea what will happen along the way. Maybe you don’t end up in Vegas at all. Maybe your characters have decided they’d rather go to Reno. Are you going to tell them no? They’ve already hit the ATM and booked serviceable lodging!
Thinking of your work in terms of performance is a good habit to cultivate. Just try it. Write a simple scene for which you’ve planned nothing. It’s not important where these characters have been, how much money they have, what their likes and dislikes are. All that matters is the spontaneous influencing the spontaneous. That’s the meaty part, the gold in the gold mine.
Fluff is a chore to read. If you don’t believe me, dig out one of your first serious pieces of writing and tell me how much of it is pertinent and how much ought to be nixed. I know, painful, right? Reminds me of the first piece of honest criticism I ever received, “I only have three problems with this story. The beginning, the middle, and the end.”
The good news about this craft is that there are a million and one ways to skin a cat. I’ll be back with more Craft and Practice next month. No cat-skinning required. See ya!
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
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I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I was thirteen and read Carrie, but I didn’t realize it until a year later when I read The Shinning one night when I was babysitting. I picked it up after my charges were asleep and I was looking for something to read, and I couldn’t put it down. I called my mom and woke her up at four in the morning, because I was too scared to read more, but I didn’t want to put the book down. I finished it the next day, and after that, I soaked up anything by Stephen King that I could get my hands on. I’ve read The Stand through three times, including the “Special Edition” version with all the cut chapters and scenes. I’ve seen the original mini-series twice, so it was in great anticipation that I awaited the coming of the new mini-series on CBS All Access. I woke up analyzing this s new version of an old favorite, so I knew I had to write this review.
Let me begin by saying that I think they made a huge mistake by starting this mini-series after Captain Tripps has devoured humanity and placed the survivors into the two camps in Boulder and New Vegas, and only allowing us glimpses of the pre-Captain Tripps world, instead of letting us get to know the characters as the story unfolds, as in the book and the original mini-series. By eliminating what was basically the first half of the book and reducing it to flashbacks, we miss out on vital character development, not to mention many of the very intense scenes that occur there.
Now, I know we shouldn’t judge this version by those that have come before, and I’ve tried not to, but in my defense, I know this story inside and out, and it is very difficult not to draw on previous knowledge. But, I’m on episode 5 and I still don’t feel connected to any of the characters. That connection, the feeling of knowing and relating to the characters, is one of the big appeals of this story. Without it, I doubt anyone would keep turning the pages of this massive novel or continue watching, because without that feeling of connection, readers or viewers have no reason to care. And I have to admit, I’m hard-pressed to keep viewing the 20-21 version for this very reason.
But the method of storytelling is only one problem. I have difficulty buying-in to this new cast. There’s already been controversy over the Randall Flagg of the first mini-series and this one, portrayed by Alexander Skarsgard, who doesn’t come off as being evil enough in my opinion, but this could go back to the lack of character developement. Although I could get used to Jovan Adepo as Larry Underwood and Gabreille Rose as Judge Harris, who are opposites of their original counterparts, I feel Whoopi Goldberg misses the mark totally with the character of Mother Abigail.
While I like Whoopi as Guynan on Star Trek Generations, and I loved her as Oda Mea Brown in Ghost, she is not the right actress for this part. Mother Abigail is old and frail and determined to carry out the Lord’s work as long as she is able, and everyone loves her and is devoted to her. Whoopi is none of these things. Goldberg is not old enough, and she’s not frail in any way. In previous versions, Mother Abigail’s strength was established through her determination while she was still alone at Hemmingford Home, (which is now in Boulder instead of Nebraska), which we only see a glimpse of in this version. We don’t see her frailty, or her failing health in the Goldberg character, and it is difficult to buy-in to the character, when I don’t feel as if I know who she is or where she came from in the story.
Overall, I am disappointed in this recent rendition of one of my favorite apocalypse tales. I know Stephen King has writing credits for at least nine episodes, but cutting out half the original story was not a good storytelling decision. Flashbacks don’t offer enough to get to know and connect with the characters. There were also several questionable casting decisions, at least in my mind, which prevent relatabilty of the characters. I honestly don’t know how much more I will watch, because they haven’t made me care about this cast of characters in any meaniful way. I will say that Captain Tripps bears some scary resemblences to the Covid pandemic we’re all living through now, but I don’t know if that is enough to attract viewers, especially without many of the most powerful scenes, such as the journey through the tunnel out of New York, Nick’s time as jailer, and Lloyd’s rat problem, which is alluded to in flashback, but just didn’t carry the same impact. My continued viewing is doubtful. If you don’t already know this apocalyptic story, I recommend the original mini-series, or better yet, get the book.
Nothing infuses energy into a story like a good villain. If you ardently hate a villain in a book you’re reading, then you’re hooked! You’ve invested emotion in the battle between good and evil, you’re waiting for justice to be served.
These wicked characters must get under your skin. They have to arouse a visceral sense of repulsion and fear, the way spiders and snakes evoke primitive terror, the way decaying fecal ooze repels the senses. Villains are difficult to write because we instinctively recoil from the dark sides of life and the more grotesque aspects of our selves. That dark side, that shadow, is the only place from which a truly compelling villain can emerge. We can’t tear off evil like a number at the grocery meat counter.
“Number Twenty Two!”
“Here I am. Let’s see. What have you got that’s horrible and scary?”
Let us pause and consider the concept of Evil. What is it?
I’ve parsed my own definition of evil to a simple formula: Evil is the inflicting of pain to avoid pain. Evil lays its destructive spell on those in its path because someone (or some Thing) has found reliable ways to scatter pain onto others. I exclude those beings who enjoy causing pain because it’s their nature. Such creatures exist, but not for the purpose of this essay.
Evil characters have malice and they have power. Many of them are concealed behind a facade of charm or apparently benign goodwill.
Evil people are trying to wriggle out from under a burden of pain by forcing others to feel that pain.
It’s not always so simple. Each of us is a composite personality. Our inner child is really a little car filled with squabbling midgets. The steering wheel passes from hand to hand, the brakes are fought over, the car veers crazily.
A villain takes advantage of the muddle of human nature by having a clear point of focus. A fixation, an obsession, a purpose. This purpose empowers the villain at the expense of ordinary people. Bad guys know who they are and why they act. In many narratives the hero struggles with doubt and obscurity of motivation. His struggle isn’t just with the villain; it’s with his own confusion. When he sees clearly, when he knows what he wants, he obtains the weapons he needs.
All through this post I’ve been thinking of two characters: Adolph Hitler and South Park cartoon nasty Eric Cartman. Hitler annihilated millions; Cartman is a fictional character in a television show. Yet they have attributes in common.
My emotions regarding Hitler are an historical abstraction. He’s become a universal symbol of evil. Cartman, on the other hand, keeps my guts in an uproar. I HATE the fucker, I loathe him! It’s a very personal engagement.
The lessons of Cartman are numerous. All of his actions are manipulations. He is completely without sincerity. He’s a bigot. There is no minority group who escapes his ire. When he’s told that white people have become a minority group, he simply doesn’t hear the message. This may be Cartman’s greatest signifier: his inability to hear anything with which he disagrees. Intellectual and moral deafness is a widespread symptom of evil.
Cartman, and villains in general, like to blame other people for their own emotional discomfort. This profound moral choice, to blame others, is a basic step into the world of evil. When writing a villainous character, it’s useful to give him someone to blame. Give him a scapegoat.
A villain can’t be frightful without power. It may be supernatural power, political power, military power, physical power, but a villain cannot elicit fear, revulsion and anger without significant power. It’s the abuse of power that sparks the reader’s anger. Most of us see power as a privilege that entails responsibility.
We get angry when power is used for gratification of the ego and the appetites.
Cartman’s power comes from several sources. He’s clever, inventive, without moral scruple and completely selfish. His mother gives him everything he wants because it’s easier that way. Cartman is a fatherless boy. His mother always takes the lazy way out; she gives in to her son’s demands. If I take South Park as a microcosm, a model for the larger society in which we live, Cartman’s mother represents economic power. She makes him rich in comparison to the other kids.
He has all the latest toys, the best video games and a total lack of supervision.
To further amplify Cartman’s power he has a follower: Butters. This sweet but witless innocent will go along with any outrageous scheme Cartman dreams up. Cartman generates momentum. While Stan, Kyle or Kenny may have qualms about Cartman’s ideas, Butters is always there to support him. The plan, the idea, the scheme always seems to run away with itself before it can be thought through.
Its consequences are never anticipated. The only brakes on Cartman’s destructive power are the other boys’ common sense and lack of malice. In the end, Cartman always brings himself to destruction, but he will never admit defeat. In some people this is an admirable trait. In Cartman, it’s merely irritating.
In Hitler it cost millions of lives. If Cartman were a real adult person he would be a frightful monster. Think what Hitler and Cartman have in common. Scapegoats. Blame. Moral and intellectual deafness. Unwillingness to take responsibility for errors in judgment. A will that generates great momentum, and attracts followers who are willing to obey without question.
In the episode called “Breast Cancer Show Ever” Cartman takes a schoolyard beating by a mere girl, by Wendy Testaburger. She played the righteous avenger when Cartman mocked breast cancer and persisted in telling hurtful jokes on the subject of breasts. When she established the time for the duel, when Cartman realized that Wendy was serious, he tried to buy her off. She would have none of it. In spite of the fact that Cartman was pounded to a bloody mess, he twisted events in his mind so that he won the fight, that he was still “Cool”, or “Kewl” in the eyes of his compatriots. Kyle and Stan told Cartman “You suck, you’ve always sucked. We hate you.” Cartman can’t hear these declarations. He is still Kewl.
This amazing deafness made me want to jump through the screen and pound the fat twerp to a pulp. My emotions were completely engaged. When a writer can raise the emotional stakes to such a pitch, that writer has succeeded in creating a compelling villain.
I have used a silly villain in a silly cartoon show to highlight the power of a good villain to propel a good story. Ignore Cartman at your own risk. He’s a first class little asshole.
People ignored and dismissed Hitler as a buffoon. We know what happened to those people. Monstrous villains have arisen throughout history. We are writers; we deal in fiction. The most frightening villains in fiction draw resonance from history’s tyrants. Lazy writers may imitate these tyrants in their narratives. Good writers draw villains out through themselves, knowing that each of us is capable of monstrosity.
A Midwesterner by birth, Arthur Rosch migrated to the West Coast just in time to be a hippie but discovered that he was more connected to the Beatnik generation. He harkened back to an Old School world of jazz, poetry, painting and photography. In the Eighties he received Playboy Magazine’s Best Short Story Award for a comic view of a planet where there are six genders. The timing was not good. His life was falling apart as he struggled with addiction and depression. He experienced the reality of the streets for more than a decade. Putting himself back together was the defining experience of his life. It wasn’t easy. It did, however, nurture his literary soul. He has a passion for astronomy, photography, history, psychology and the weird puzzle of human experience. He is currently a certified Seniors Peer Counselor in Sonoma County, California. Come visit his blogs and photo sites. www.artrosch.com and http://bit.ly/2uyxZbv.
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I am so pleased to welcome my author guest this month on “Chatting with the Pros”. He is the most prolific writer I know and he’s written numerous books that have made international bestsellers lists. He’s best known for his science fiction and fantasy stories, but he’s done a good amount of writing for hire and lives by the motto of, “I can do that”. I’ve asked him to join me here today as we celebrate superheroes and supervillains, because of one single book that he wrote, Enemies and Allies, which delves into the universe of superheroes, in hopes that he will share with us his unique perspective on this often overlooked genre. Please help me welcome Kevin J. Anderson.
Kaye: When did you know you wanted to be an author?
Kevin: When I was five, even before I could write. I knew I wanted to tell stories.
Kaye: You’ve been on bestseller lists, won multiple-awards for your writing, had your books made into screenplays, published both short fiction and novel length works, collaborated with some big name authors, and started your own independent press. In your own eyes, what has been your greatest writing accomplishment to date?
Kevin: I think the greatest thing is being able to do what I love and actually make a living at it—not getting one thing published, not winning an award, not seeing a movie option on one of your stories, but by being able to do this not as a hobby, but as the thing by which I pay the bills. I’ve been full time for 25 years now. I’m probably unemployable otherwise.
Kaye: Do you remember the first book you ever read?
Kevin: THE TIME MACHINE by HG Wells
Kaye: In Enemies & Allies, who was the most difficult character to write? Why?
Kevin: Superman/Kal-el/Clark. Sometimes he comes off as a simplistic boy scout, but I really think I got to the core of why he’s a superhero, and why he’s very human at the same time.
Kaye: How does writing a superhero or a super villain differ from writing plain old heroes and villains? What makes super heroes so special?
Kevin: They can do bigger, more epic things, which is great fun as a writer, but you also have to give them greater weaknesses. The things they do MATTER to the future of the world and the human race, not just “Gee, who’s going to ask me to prom?”
Kaye: In Enemies & Allies, which superhero did you favor, Batman or Superman?
Kevin: I found Batman much easier to write and understand, a gritty lost soul, and so I worked a lot harder to get just as deep into Superman, to flesh him out more, and I think I succeeded in finding a very good balance between the two extremes while keeping them both heroes.
Kaye: What is the hardest part to writing a super villain?
Kevin: Supervillains are fun. You can be as twisted as you want and you can dive into their motivations. Why are they the bad guy?
Kaye: Which would you rather write, a superhero or a super villain? Why?
Kevin: Supervillains. But in most of my writing I try to make it a matter of perspective as to who is the villain and who is the hero. Depends on what side you’re on.
Kaye: Do you see superhero/supervillain qualities coming out through the characters in your other stories? Which stories do you see this in most?
Kevin: I still consider them all as characters, with good sides and bad sides, each with powers or skills. I have only done two superhero books out of my 165 titles, so actually approached it the other way around, bringing all my other writing skills to bear in a novel featuring superheroes.
Kaye: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
Kevin: Wait, another apocalypse??? Hmmm, if I couldn’t write, I would be a publisher or a public speaker or a teacher…but I’m already doing those things. In these times, you can’t just be ONE thing. If I had to scrap everything related to the industry, I suppose I would be a forest ranger, because I love the outdoors.
Kaye: Is there anything unique or unusual about your writing process?
Kevin: I get a lot of attention because I do all my writing by dictation, talking into a digital recorder while I hike. But I have been doing it for thirty years, so I don’t consider it unusual at all.
Kaye: Which is your favorite type of writing? Short fiction? Novels? Comic Books? Screenplays? Poetry? Graphic Novels? Why?
Kevin: Novels. I like the big scope, a project I can sink my teeth into and spend lots of time developing it.
Kaye: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Kevin: Don’t quit your day job. Keep writing and refining and getting better, and never stop.
Kaye: What do you think is the single most important element in a story?
Kevin: It’s not a single-element thing. It’s like saying which is the most important wheel on your car. You have to get the plot, the characters, the prose, the worldbuilding, the idea, everything.
Kaye: What is the one thing in your writing career that is the most unusual or unique thing you’ve done so far?
Kevin: Probably working with legendary Rush drummer Neil Peart to convert the last Rush album, Clockwork Angels, into a bestselling novel. One of my proudest accomplishments.
I want to thank Kevin for joining me today and sharing his insight into the making of a superhero or supervillain, and his thoughts on writing. Kevin is currently working in the fantasy realm, with his newest thoughts on Gods and Dragons. You can learn more about Kevin and his books at WordFire Press or on his Amazon author page.
Also, Kevin’s convention bookstore is no longer traveling, so there are a lot of signed copies of his books in inventory right now, as well as some obscure and hard to find books. Some sets discounted to half-price or even more, including all six original Dune books for $30. You can check out the selection at http://www.wordfireshop.com.
Join me next month, when we will be delving into speculative fiction, and my “Chatting with the Pros” author guest will be Dave Wolverton.
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We’re all tired of staying at home during this recent crisis. It seems like everyone has been affected in different ways, but no one has gone unscathed. Our world has changed in recent times. We, as authors and lovers of the written word had many of our in-person writing events – conferences, conventions, and book fairs – cancelled due to the appearance of COVID 19. To to emulate all those events we look forward to each year and are missing out on now, and to chase away some of the boredom of social distancing and isolation, WordCrafter presents the 2020 Stay in Place Virtual Writing Conference on Tuesday, April 28 from 8 am to 8 pm.
This is a unique event, the first of its kind, and one you won’t want to miss. Free presentations and author takeovers will be occurring on the Facebook event page, and interactive workshops and panel discussions will be offered for a minimal fee on the Zoom platform. Interactive panel discussions and workshop session can be accessed individually for $5, or an all access pass to all interactive sessions can be purchased for $50. Tickets can be purchased on the Facebook event page. Watch for your Facebook event invite from me or one of the many wonderful authors involved with this conference. Send me a message through my WordCrafter page or through the event page if you have further questions, or if you would like a half an hour author takeover spot to promote your own work.
This has been a huge undertaking to organize and set up an event such as this one, but I haven’t done it alone. Without my 22 talented presenters, this event couldn’t happen. We have a great line-up, with international bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson presenting the keynote on the interactive platform.
And that’s just the beginning. Take a look at the talent that has lined up for presentations, workshops and panel discussions.
Award winning and national bestselling speculative fiction author Mario Acevedo will be offering a presentation – “The Power of Motivation: What Your Characters Do and Why”
USA Today bestselling multi-genre author Dan Alatorre will be a member of the interactive book marketing panel discussion.
Multi-genre author Chris Barili will be presenting “Writing in the Face of Adversity” and giving an interactive workshop on “Writing Across Genres”.
Award winning fantasy author L.D. Colter will be offering a presentation on “Short Fiction”.
World builder and speculative fiction author Kieth R.A. DeCandido will be offering an interactive workshop on “The Business of Writing” and he is the moderator for the media tie-in interactive panel discussion.
Award winning novelist Guy Anthony De Marco will be a member on both the short fiction and world building interactive panel discussions.
Fantasy and science fiction author Anthony Dobranski will offer two presentaions, “How to Swim Upstream: Not being in the mainstream of your market/genre” and “Working with Others: How to direct others in a project”. In addition, he will offer two interactive workshops. “Business Class Tarot” and “The Savage Horror of Writing Back Cover Copy”.
Author for young readers, Jason Henderson will be presenting “Story Ideas and the Choices You Make” and moderating the interactive book marketing panel discussion.
Media tie-in author Kevin Killiany will be a member on the interactive world building, media tie-in, and short fiction panel discussions.
Award winning young adult fantasy author L. Jagi Lamplighter will be on the interactive panel on world building, and moderate the interactive short fiction interactive panel discussion.
Award-winning science fiction author J.R.H. Lawless will be a member of the book marketing interactive panel discussion.
Award winning and New York Times bestselling multi-genre author Jonathan Maberry will be a member on three interactive panel discussions: short fiction, world building and media tie-ins.
Award winning multi-genre author Bobby Nash will deliver a presentation on “The Importance of Promotion”, as well as being a member of both the media tie-in and book promotion panel discussions.
Science fiction and fantasy author Jody Lynn Nye will offer a presentation on using humor in science fiction and fantasy writing, “Bringing the Funny: how to apply humor to your writing” and she will be a member of the world building interactive panel discussion.
Award winning fantasy author Ellie Raine will sit on both the short fiction and world building interactive panel discussions.
Award winning multi-genre author Art Rosch will offer a presentation on “Creating Villains We Love to Hate”.
Award winning multi-genre author Sean Taylor will offer a presentation on “Visceral Story Beginnings”.
Science fiction author and marketing expert Alexi Vandenberg will be joining the book marketing panel.
Award winning poet and author Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer offers a livestream presentation “The Gateway to the Unknown: A Poetry Thought Shop”.
Author and educator Rick Wilber will be a member of the short fiction interactive panel discussion.
Award winning and New York Times bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Dave Wolverton/David Farland offers a”Promoting Your Book BIG” and he is a member of the interactive book marketing panel discussion.
You can find a full schedule here. I do hope all of you will join us for this unique writing event. It’s the first of its kind and we could be making history. You can be a part of it, too. Join us.
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The idea that children’s picture books should contain a strong moral or message seems to be very popular among authors of books for young people. This notion probably emanates from parents and caregivers who are of the view that books are a tool for instructing their young, especially in our modern world of so many more risks to the welfare our children than ever before.
This idea does, however, always bring to my mind the lyrics of the song, A British Nanny sung by David Tomlinson, from the original movie of Mary Poppins:
“A British nanny must be a general!
The future empire lies within her hands
And so the person that we need to mold the breed
Is a nanny who can give commands!
Mr Banks: Are you getting this Winifred?
Mrs Banks: Oh yes dear, every word
A British bank is run with precision
A British home requires nothing less!
Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools
Without them – disorder!
Anarchy – In short you have a ghastly mess!”
This is an amusing song and you can listen to it here:
The idea of a story or picture book containing a message is not a bad one. It is very much about how the message is presented in the story that will decide whether the book appeals to children or not. After all, children’s writers want to write books that children want to read again and again, not books that their parents think they should read.
My own children have taught me that children run a mile when they think that a book contains an overt moral or message. With this in mind, how then can a parent or caregiver select a book that both teaches and entertains?
Firstly, what the reader will takeaway from the story should be considered. It is not necessary to write out a moral at the end of a tale in the manner of Aesop’s Fables, the message can be subtle, for example, a polluted river that poisons a river or lake and results in all the fish and water creatures dying and the resolution of that predicament by cleaning up the river and preventing future contamination of the water. Children will understand the message without it being spelled out for them.
Some other tips for choosing books that will entertain as well as teach children are as follows:
- Make sure that the book is character driven with memorable characters that make the reader care about them. For example in Heidi by Johanna Spyri, the author makes the reader really care about Heidi, Clara and even Grandfather as he changes from a grumpy old man into a tender caregiver. I can remember crying when Heidi goes away from Grandfather to live with Clara in the city;
- The language and voice of the story should be suitable for a child and should be interesting and fun. The idea of family members all helping each other and their parents is strongly conveyed in Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series of books through the expectations of the parents and the behavior of, and awareness of their family dynamics by, the children;
- Showing and not telling is another essential ingredient to a good children’s story. I think Roald Dahl is a master and demonstrating exactly where unkind and selfish behavior gets you in life, think of the fate of the two aunts in James and the Giant Peach or the Twits from the book of the same name.
What do you think about children’s books that contain messages? Should they be subtle or overt? Let me know in the comments.
About Robbie Cheadle
Hello, my name is Robbie, short for Roberta. I am an author with six published children’s picture books in the Sir Chocolate books series for children aged 2 to 9 years old (co-authored with my son, Michael Cheadle), one published middle grade book in the Silly Willy series and one published preteen/young adult fictionalised biography about my mother’s life as a young girl growing up in an English town in Suffolk during World War II called While the Bombs Fell (co-authored with my mother, Elsie Hancy Eaton). All of my children’s book are written under Robbie Cheadle and are published by TSL Publications.
I have recently branched into adult and young adult horror and supernatural writing and, in order to clearly differential my children’s books from my adult writing, I plan to publish these books under Roberta Eaton Cheadle. My first supernatural book published in that name, Through the Nethergate, is now available.
I have two short stories in the horror/supernatural genre included in Dark Visions, a collection of 34 short stories by 27 different authors and edited by award winning author, Dan Alatorre. I also have three short stories in Death Among Us, a collection of short murder mystery stories by 10 different authors and edited by Stephen Bentley. These short stories are all published under Robbie Cheadle.
I have recently published a book of poetry called Open a new door, with fellow South African poet, Kim Blades.
Find Robbie Cheadle
Goodreads: Robbie Cheadle – Goodreads
Instagram: Robbie Cheadle – Instagram
Facebook: Sir Chocolate Books
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