I’ve never been a big fan of the Snow White story. Abusive parents, runaway girls finding refuge with seven single men all living together…let’s just say it hit all the wrong buttons for me, you know?
Except, there was one thing about that story that totally resonated with me – the idea of a magic mirror. Imagine, looking into a mirror and having not your image reflected as you are, but as you want to be. One look and you get declared the fairest of them all. (That’s my idea of a fairy tale!)
Using a magic mirror is essentially what I do when I create my characters.
So often, my main character is:
- Me, but funnier
- Me, but cooler
- Me, but more interesting
- Me, but less disorganized
- Me, but more capable
You get the idea, don’t you?
My characters talk like me. They think like me. They have the same concerns that I do. They stress about the same things and get excited about the same things.
When I look in the mirror, I see my characters. But because it’s a magic mirror, they’re magnified to be funnier, cooler, more interesting – whatever filter the mirror is adding that day.
Let me share some examples from my work.
Through most of my life, I’ve been pretty successful (I’m not bragging, as you’ll see in a moment…). I did well in school without trying. I got into all the colleges, and later all the graduate programs, that I wanted to without too much effort. Even when I had my first child, it took about 3 minutes and 6 pushes and the next morning I was back in my pre-pregnancy clothes. I was the type of person who expected that she would be successful, and therefore I was the type of person who actually was successful.
But then, I decided that I wanted to write books for children, even though I’d never written fiction in my life. I’ll be very honest, initially, I was absolutely certain that I would succeed, that this venture would go as swimmingly as everything else always had.
Of course, publishing is not that easy.
For the first time, my hard work was not met with success, but with rejection. For the first time, people ddn’t look at me and expect me to succeed – they thought I was crazy for trying to do what I wanted to do.
Princess Bea from PIRATE PRINCESS is the kind of girl that has big dreams that involve the high seas, swashbuckling, and treasure hunts. She’s going to be pirate – even though she’s a princess who has never been on a ship in her life. She’s absolutely sure she will succeed, until her dreams – and her lunch – come crashing down in front of everyone.
In your mind’s eye, can you see the reflection that faced me when I looked into my magic mirror?
There were so many moments in my early publishing career that I wanted to give up. But like Princess Bea, I learned that even when faced with a bleak future, believing in yourself can make your dreams come true. When I wrote Bea’s character, I gave her the resolve and perseverance I strove to have myself. She is me, but pluckier, gutsier, braver. But she definitely is me.
Obviously, not every single character is based on me. Every once in a while, I base a character on someone I know. Often, I’ll prop my children in front of that magic mirror and see what gets reflected. Sometimes, it’s my friends. These people I love become better, stronger, more when I turn them into my characters.
Here’s another example from my own work.
I have two tween/teen daughters, and they have a lot of tween/teen grand plans. Unfortunately, they have a younger brother who is far less tween/teen and far more chaos and destruction. I’ve watched two daughters trying to be patient with their younger brother – before ultimately growing so frustrated that they demand that we return him and get a toaster instead. When I plopped this trio in front of the magic mirror, the girls became more orderly, more responsible, more type A. My son, on the other hand, became clumsier, flakier, and more, well, Moose-like.
Taken together, my kids became the characters in DUCK DUCK MOOSE, a book about two ducks who have a hard time dealing with a moose who somehow seems to ruin everything. And yet, just like my children have done, the ducks and the moose form and untraditional yet unbreakable unit. (The magic mirror magnified those qualities as well – I’m not sure the real ducks are as forgiving as the fictional ducks, nor that the real moose is as innocent as the moose in the book!)
By the way, sometimes the person I place in front of the mirror is someone I don’t like. In one of those cases, the reflection is of that person – but she’s dumber, or weaker, or more disgusting. Because the mirror magnifies personal qualities in both directions.
Remember how I said that what I loved about Snow White was the magic mirror that showed you as the person wanted to be? Your readers want that, too. Your readers want your book to be a magic mirror.
The best stories feature a main character who is a reflection of the reader. When the reader looks in the magic mirror that is the book, he sees himself.
That may sound like a contradiction – after all, how can your main character be you AND all of your readers? But I promise you it is not. Because when we construct our characters, even though they are reflections of real people, the magnification process gives them a universal quality.
Here’s what I mean by that. Not all of you have lain awake at night wanting a midnight snack while at the same time fearing that a Hampire might eat you. But we all know the feeling of being afraid of the unknown and making rash decisions before gathering all the facts. Not all of you are talking chickens in pajamas wanting to stay up past your bedtimes. But we all have wanted to break the rules at some point – and have felt true solidarity with anyone who would break the rules along with us. And not all of you have had to kiss a lot of rodents or pigs to get to what you truly wanted out of life. But…well, maybe that example can stand as is.
So when you are looking at your character in the magic mirror, make sure you look past the surface appearance and try to see who he or she is deep, down inside. Don’t focus on the little details and instead probe into his or her very soul. Turn the mirror into an X-ray machine, into an electron microscope. Look at the all the parts – and then look again at the whole picture.
Can you see your character now?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the co-founder of Kidlit Summer School and an award-winning author whose books include DUCK DUCK MOOSE, TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS, ORANGUTANGLED, and over thirty more books. Her books have been named to the Junior Library Guild, the California Reader’s Collection, the Alabama Children’s Choice Book Award Program, the Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year lists and the Amelia Bloomer list. Find out more about her by visiting her WEBSITE or her blogs Nerdy Chicks Rule and Nerdy Chicks Write. Visit her Author page on Facebook HERE. Remember to follow her on Twitter @SudiptaBQ.
Sudipta is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.
And check out the Exercise Book for Sudipta’s tips on Gazing into your Own Character Magic Mirror!