Episode Five – The Story Thief Challenges – How to write great characters

Written by Liam (with a little help from Aoife)

Featuring top children’s author Kieran Crowley!

Note: If you’re a teacher or librarian or work with kids check out the guidance for educators  section. It includes advice on how to do this month’s Story Challenge with kids!


Everything you need to know if you haven’t read the other episodes

Hi. I’m Liam. I’m eleven years old. Aoife is my annoying hyper sister. She’s seven. This is episode five of our twelve episode blog series about the crazy and scary things that happened to us last summer.

Our writer Dad’s books weren’t getting published. He started forgetting all his stories, including our bedtimes stories. We got advice from top Irish kids authors to help him, but it didn’t help. We soon discovered why.

Dad had tried to win a great story from the Story Thief. The Story Thief steals writer’s stories if they don’t write them down or tell them quickly. It carries a massive pen as big as a spear and it has a ledger on its back where it writes the stories it steals before it hides them away in its secret library.

 

IMG_20180201_193650256Dad tried doing its three story challenges to get a really good story idea from it, but got one question wrong so as part of his deal, the Thief was taking Dad’s stories and his memories too. It even stole Dad’s memory of contacting the Thief in the first place. We were at risk of losing our Dad. 

We summoned the Thief. We saw its shadow and felt its cold breath. We agreed to do its Story Challenges to win back Dad’s stories and memories. If we failed any of the three challenges, it would take our memories and stories too.

With the help of top kids fiction writer, Caroline Busher, we’d just completed the first of three story challenges. We put our story on our trampoline in our garden so the Thief could collect it by midnight…


 

It was just past midnight when Aoife yelped, ‘Jeepers. It’s gone!’

I joined her at the window. My breath steamed up the glass, but I could see she was right. There was no paper under the rock we’d left on the trampoline.

I shivered. ‘What if we, you know, failed the challenge and -’

She waved away my worries. ‘Don’t be stupid. It was great. It was -’

Aoife shut up in mid-sentence.

‘Aoife, what is -?’

Peeking out of a book, there was a new handwritten note on faded paper.

I said, ‘That book wasn’t -’

‘-there earlier,’ Aoife finished.

We both shivered. The Story Thief must have been in the room with us just second ago.

Aoife asked, ‘How does it do it? Just appear wherever it likes?’

‘I don’t know.’

I cautiously held up the note then raised a fist in triumph when I saw the number on it. ‘It’s our second challenge!’

‘Yay! One down!’ She held up her hand, ‘High five brother!’

I slapped her five then read out the second of our three challenges:

By midnight give me characters for a story,

Rounded, rich, full of glory.

If they’re dull or miss the mark,

I’ll come to get you after dark.

Aoife rolled her eyes, ‘ Thinks it’s so special. I could write a rhyme, if I had a little time!’

I laughed. Sometimes it was good having Aoife around. She made it even harder to be scared.

I dropped the note onto the ground. ‘I know the writer we need.’

While Dad slept, I booted up his computer in his office. After a quick search I found Irish author Kieran Crowley.

I typed in my question

Dear Kieran. How do you write all your characters and make them seem so real and also so different to each other? Please answer this as soon as possible! Liam and Aoife

I clicked send and high fived Aoife again. Once we had Kieran’s advice it would be easy. Plus tomorrow was Saturday. We’d have loads of time to write out some characters for the Thief.

I was so relaxed I slept in till after nine. I puttered sleepily into Dad’s office and checked the computer. No reply from Kieran. Still I was sure that we’d be okay until Dad’s oddly cheery voice boomed through the house.

‘Come on Aoife. Put your uniform on! Matches today! ’

I groaned.  Aoife had her gaelic football blitz! That would take all morning! Why couldn’t the Thief have stolen that memory from Dad?

Instead of me and Aoife carefully constructing characters, I ended up on the sideline of a pitch in the freezing cold while she played a blinder as usual. It should have been awful, but it wasn’t and that was all because of Dad.

There was no sign that the Thief had taken any more memories from Dad. In fact the only thing Dad seemed to have forgotten was how grumpy and low he’d been recently. His good mood was infectious and by the last match I was shouting along with him.

‘Give me a A!’

‘A!’

‘Give me an 0!’

‘O!’

‘This is taking too long – GO AOIFE!’

‘GO AOIFE!’

Aoife scored another point, ran back towards us shaking her fist and grinning. I forgot all about everything that had happened and hugged Dad in celebration.

In the car driving home, we were in high spirits. Dad looked back at Aoife.‘You were great Aoife. The moment you -’

I swear I saw a flicker of darkness in the car, like a black cloak blocking my view of my father for a second followed by a gust of cold wind then Dad’s perplexed expression.

The Story Thief had stolen Dad’s memories of the match.

Aoife’s worried eyes flicked to me. Dad meanwhile tried to pretend nothing was wrong.

He laughed it off. ‘You were great, you really were. Liam and I, we -’

Cold wind again.

Flicker of darkness.

Dad’s confused, scared eyes.

Aoife swung her arms at the empty space where the Thief had been and shouted, ‘Go away!’

Dad was upset and puzzled.‘Who are you shouting -?’

Cold wind. Darkness. Dad’s mouth closed. Another memory gone.

Aoife roared, ‘LEAVE OUR DAD ALONE!’

Dad looking back at us instead of at the road. I put my hand over her mouth. ‘Shut up! You’re upsetting him.’

Dad wasn’t looking at the busy road we were racing along. Trembling voice. ‘I don’t understand anything. What’s happening?’

As he watched us for our answer, his car veered slowly into oncoming traffic.

Cars were beeping at us.

We were about to crash.

I watched everything like it was happening to someone else then I shook back into the present.

‘DAD! THE ROAD!’

Dad looked back at the traffic, cursed and swerved our car back into its lane. Car horns blared at us, but we were safe again.

Dad drove on in silence. His hands were white knuckled on the wheel.

When we got home, he sat down in the kitchen and put his head in his hands. Aoife and I ran up to his office.

She got there first and roared, ‘He’s replied!’

I nervously read out loud the Writing Advice from Kieron Crowley, author of lots of four books, including ‘The Mighty Dynamo’ and ‘The Misfits‘.

 

 

 

Dear Liam and Aoife

Thanks for your great question! I’m not a huge believer in writing rules – I’ve always learned more through making mistakes than being told what to do – but I will tell you how I write characters and perhaps some of it will be useful.

First of all, I don’t think of them as characters, I think of them as people, which might sound odd or a bit la-di-dah, but it’s actually important. When I’m reading a story I love being immersed in a different world. For those few hours or days (or weeks if you’re reading Lord of the Rings), I want to feel like I’m part of that world and I can only believe in it if the characters seem real to me. And as a writer, if I don’t believe my characters are real people, nobody else will either.

So, where do you start when it comes to creating the people who populate your stories? Sometimes a character emerges fully-formed, sparked by a thought or a book or a news report, whereas other times I really struggle to create them. One thing I might do is draw what I imagine they look like or write down snippets of things I think they’d say. Occasionally, a character’s name will pop into my head for no reason whatsoever – like Fintan Wickerly from my second book – and suddenly the rest will follow. Without quite knowing why, the name will suggest what the kind of person they are, the clothes they wear and lots of other things about them. Coming up with character names can be a lot of fun (JK Rowling took some of the names for her characters from headstones in a graveyard). There’s no single method of character creation that works for me. I just try lots of different things until something resembling a character appears and then I just keep writing.  

How do you make them real, part one: I try to make sure that every character, even the most minor one, is a person in his or her own right. I don’t know about you, but I often see myself as the star of my own film, the centre of the universe, and everyone else is just a character in the story of my life (perhaps I have an ego problem). Unless they’re lacking in self-confidence, none of your characters should think of themselves as sidekicks – they’re the stars of their own life stories.

When I wrote The Mighty Dynamo, the main character wanted to become a professional footballer so he could help his family out financially, so that was his goal in the story and was the reason why he wanted to form his own football team. But all the other characters in the story have their own reasons for wanting to play in the tournament too – some just love football, others want to show off, some are looking for friendship, and so on – and they all have hopes and ambitions, their own goals (bad pun intended).

How do you make them real, part two: I come up with situations and think about how my characters might react in those situations. For example, if one of them found a fifty euro note on the footpath, would they look for the owner or would they head straight for a shop and spend it? If they did spend it, would they feel guilty afterwards? The answers to these kinds of questions can help to show you who the character is.

Finally, when you are writing your characters, it’s good to remember that people can always surprise you. Someone who is calm and in control most of the time might shriek and run away when they see a harmless spider, while someone who is usually nervous and shy might take charge in a life or death situation.  

That’s all I have to offer. I don’t know if I’ve made thinks muddier or clearer, but that’s kind of the point. People aren’t always sane and rational and neat and tidy, so your characters shouldn’t be either. They should be happy, sad, angry, fearful, kind, jealous and so much more. We’re all human, we’ve all got these emotions and we’re all real. They should be too.

Best of luck, Aoife and Liam.

Kieran

P.S. I have a Story Challenge for you. Try to come up with a funny or cool or weird name. Or draw a picture of a really interesting looking person (or monster or animal or whatever you want). Now write out a paragraph or two that describes the personality of the great character you’ve just created. 

When I’d finished reading it, Aoife was her usual ebullient self again. ‘Pow! I’ve got an idea for a character now.’

‘Is it a monkey?’

She punched me on the shoulder. ‘No!’

‘Ouch. Okay.’ I pulled over a piece of paper. ’You talk. I’ll draw.’

By bedtime we’d come up with some characters for the Story Thief. It wasn’t easy, but Kieron’s advice made all the difference. We went downstairs to put them on the trampoline. Dad was standing in the middle of the kitchen. He looked like something had just scared him.

I asked, ‘What’s wrong Dad?’

He pointed suspiciously.  ‘That thing there.’

Our mouths dropped open in shock. Aoife whispered to me, ‘We have to save him.’

I nodded. ‘We will.’

Dad pointed again.

Our Dad, an amazing cook, the man who could even make vegetables taste good, was pointing at the oven.

His voice trembled with fear, ‘What is it?’

 

After dark text

Episode 6 of The Story Thief Challenges featuring Pádraig Kenny (author of ‘Tin’) is out on Tuesday 5th June!

Here’s the stuff Dad told me I had to tell everyone…

The Story Thief Challenges is a twelve part series published on the first Monday of each month. Each episode includes writing advice from an Irish children’s fiction author and a Story Challenge activity that can be used by teachers, librarians and other educators with kids.

To subscribe to The Story Thief Challenges to ensure you don’t miss an episode please click here.

If you would like more information on Kieran Crowley and his books and how to contact him, including for school and library and other visits click here.

If you’re a teacher / librarian / educator or parent and you would like advice on how use The Story Thief Challenges and each month’s Story Challenges with children to promote reading, writing, story telling and creativity please click here.

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