Torturing Characters 101

I just returned from a nine-day tour that took me to eight libraries, a bookstore, and a conference (which is always scary because it involves talking to—eek—adults). I spent a great deal of my time expounding my opinions on what it means to be a writer. In short, I think it’s mostly about torturing our characters. I always tell my kids, “Don’t feed your characters. Don’t give them warm places to sleep. Your job, really, is to cause them problems.”

This tends to make them laugh or scratch their heads . . . but as soon as I put their imaginations into action, they readily get the point. After all, they may love their Harry Potters, Percy Jackson, and so forth—but what they really want is to see those characters wriggle their way out of trouble! ]

When I’m dealing with a big group, I generally like to do interactive character design. As you can see, the students are rarely kind in creating their creatures . . . In the case below, “Freekalafondo” has a skin issue, a third eye (in his chin), brown teeth (because he uses peanut butter as toothpaste), and a staff that fires magic gumballs. Oh, and the body of a chicken. (That’s mostly to torture ME, since I famously am not a fan of chickens. Unless it’s dinnertime.)

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This is a fun activity and works well with larger groups, but I was also fortunate enough on this tour to have some smaller audiences, which allowed me to roll out my interactive mapping workshop. In this activity, we create a character and an item that the character has either lost or had stolen. We put the character and the object in two opposite corners of the page and then send the character off to reclaim said object.

I draw one big map at the front of the audience and, meanwhile, the students draw their own maps, taking inspiration from the group map, but not necessarily copying it. Of course, along the way, I take many suggestions to cause our characters pain. This happens with landscape obstacles and various creatures. When things get TOO tough, I have the kids create a haven for their character where he or she (or it) can meet a mentor figure and receive three helpful items. These can be a combination of sidekicks, talismans, potions . . . anything that helps. As the journey proceeds and we keep mapping the story, these objects get used up. It’s kind of like a video game.

For the group map, I usually use my alter-ego, Mr. Wiz, as the hapless adventurer. For SOME reason, the students delight in torturing me and are never at a lack for suggestions to cause me pain. On this particular tour, sharks seemed to be the pain-de-jour.

Well, the group map is never a work of art. We go quickly and it’s hard for me to keep up with the students’ barrage of ideas. But, as I always explain to them, this activity isn’t about art, but about brainstorming. What we’ve really done by this point is map out an entire plot for a story. All the students need to do then is convert their individual maps into words!

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