Unexpected Character Traits Bring In The Funny by @lauriewallmark and GIVEAWAY

Whether your novel is humorous or serious, a bit of levity can add to a child’s reading enjoyment. Let your characters help you inject humor into the story, by giving them unexpected traits, such as:

  • unusual talents
  • competing personality features
  • a unique self-image
  • peculiar behaviors
  • idiosyncratic speaking patterns.  

Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses (Candlewick Press, 2013) is a mentor text on how to bring out the funny through the use of unexpected character traits.

Wallmark_FloraBookIn Flora and Ulysses, Ulysses has talents that are, shall we say, more than a little unusual. Though he’s only a squirrel, Ulysses can fly, type, and write poetry. As a reader, you certainly don’t expect to see a squirrel sitting at a typewriter, his bushy tale waving behind, let alone with his tiny “fingers” poised over the keyboard. The unexpectedness of such an unusual character is automatically funny.

Throughout the novel, Ulysses provides comedic moments through the juxtaposition of competing personality features—his human side and his base animal instincts. When Ulysses becomes frightened by the waitress at the doughnut shop, he tries to calm himself down, as a person would. But eventually, his innate squirrelness takes over, and he attempts to escape. The ensuing mayhem provides several laugh out loud moments, especially when he lands in the waitress’s huge hair. Your characters don’t have to be human-like animals to be funny. All you have to do is give your human characters contrasting personality traits that are at odds with each other.

The other main character, Flora, is humorous in a different way than Ulysses. In her case, it’s not that she has bizarre human talents, but rather she has a unique self-image for a child. She has branded herself as a cynic, so will let nothing about humans surprise her. Here again, the humor comes from the unexpected—a child with the world-weary views of a cynic. The combination of her adult-like cynicism with her childish companion, a doll in a shoebox, provides the same sort of juxtaposition humor as above.

Another secondary character, Flora’s friend William, has peculiar behaviors, in that he presents like a miniature adult, in both speech and action. The contrast between William’s actual and apparent age leads to humor. This type of character, with his unexpected behaviors, provides a perfect crucible to generate humorous situations.

A character’s idiosyncratic speaking patterns can help create a funny scene. In William’s case, his non-standard dialogue is taken to an extreme. While most children would say something like, “I scratched my knee,” not William. He has to elaborate and exaggerate every explanation with his own unexpected way of speaking. William’s over-explanations, so unchildlike, create a thread of humor that runs through the entire book.

Be brave. The more outrageous you are with your unexpected characterizations, the funnier it will be. In addition, it’s your characters’ quirks will endear them to your reader.

Takeaways:

  • You can add humor to any novel by giving your characters unexpected traits.
  • You can apply this technique to any character, not just your main one.
  • The more outrageous the character trait, the funnier.

 

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Laurie Wallmark writes picture books and middle-grades, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When not writing, Laurie teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College. Her debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, 2015), received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal) and several national awards. It is a Cook Prize Honor Book. Her next book, Dare and Do : The Story of Grace Hopper, Queen of Computer Code (Sterling Children’s Books) will be out Spring 2017.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Laurie’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

Laurie is kindly giving away a signed copy of Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

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Heidi Schulz: Improving Plot Through Revision and GIVEAWAY

Want to know a secret about me? I don’t particularly enjoy drafting. Even when I work with an outline and I know what it supposed to happen, the act of mining that raw story out of my brain is so difficult. I much prefer the refining process that comes through revision.

When I visit school groups, I often tell them that writing is like building a house.  Your premise and outline—if you use one—is your foundation.  The first draft is the framing. Once the framing has gone up, the building is basically house shaped, but no one would want to live there.

Let me break out my decidedly poor Mac Paintbrush skills and demonstrate.

 

HSchulz_House_01

 

Would you want to live in that house?
It’s easy to believe that the work of plotting all happens in the foundation and framework, but that’s not exactly true. Once you have the structure of a first draft in place, you may find that you want to expand certain sections, reduce—or remove entirely—others, and generally move things around. That’s where revision comes in!

Post-First Draft Plotting Strategies
Reread your manuscript, looking for “out of nowhere” plot elements. Can you plant information early in your manuscript that will allow them to seem more like natural developments and less like deus ex machina?

HSchulz_HookRevengeDo you have peaks and valleys in the action? It can be nice to have an introspective or character development scene after a high action scene, to give readers a chance to catch their breath. Can you reorder existing scenes to allow for breaks in the action?

Writing tip: For high-action, intense scenes, try short sentences. They can help ratchet up the tension.
Trim the fat. Are you starting in the right place? Can early chapters with backstory be lopped off and the information weaved in elsewhere? Can a complicated subplot be streamlined? Do multiple characters serve the same purpose? Can they be combined into one?

Ask yourself: Does this [chapter/scene/paragraph/line/word] move the plot forward? How does it best serve my story? Is it redundant? If you are having a hard time answering, try cutting it. Your story will likely work better without it.

Eliminate unnecessary transitions. Do we really need to see your character driving to school after that tense scene at breakfast? If not, perhaps you could indicate time passing with a scene break and voila, your character is at school, ready to exorcise the demon that resides in her math teacher.

Writing tip: Use a centered pound sign, or hashtag, as the kids call it these days, to indicate a scene break in your manuscript.
Keep prose tight. Cut extraneous words such as “just,” “that,” or what my friend Martha Brokenbrough calls sensory tags: “He watched the executioner raise his axe” vs. “The executioner raised his ax.”

Exercise: Do a document search for words such as these in your current work in progress. How many can you eliminate?
Keep working on your story house. It takes revision to finish the story, to put up the metaphorical curtains and throw out the metaphorical welcome mat. But eventually you will have a place readers will want to curl up in and spend a nice, long time.

HSchulz_House_02

 

Let’s recap things to consider:

  • The work of plotting is not finished once you have created your first draft.
  • Consider places to expand or trim to keep the plot even paced.
  • Be sure to give low-action scenes after high action scenes to give readers a change to catch their breath.

 

Author Heidi Schulz_Photo by Stefani Chabot 2015Heidi Schulz is a lover of pie, a giraffe suspicioner, and the author of Hook’s Revenge, a middle grade novel published by Disney•Hyperion. A sequel, Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code, be out in September followed by her picture book debut, Giraffes Ruin Everything (Bloomsbury Kids), in Spring 2016. Heidi lives in Oregon with her husband, their teen daughter, a terrible little dog, and four irascible chickens. You can find out more about Heidi on her Website, or Facebook / Twitter / Goodreads

 

Heidi is giving away a signed hardcover copy of Hook’s Revenge. (USA only) and five signed swag packs (worldwide). If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Maryrose’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.