Friday, February 24, 2012

The Visual Character Arc: Characterization in Picture Books

The Visual Character Arc: Characterization in Picture Books
by Magdalena Ball
Normally when writing instructors speak of the 'character arc' they're talking about textual based fiction, but all good books, from novels to children's picture books use characterisation well. So why is characterisation important? There's one key, critical reason and that is because everyone reading your book is going to be a person who will need to relate to and accept (even if temporarily) as real. To achieve good characterisation in a novel you need details, specifics, visual impressions, motion. This can be achieved just as well with images as it can with text. With text, you often need a paragraph to convey a character impression such as the following from my new novel Black Cow:

Her mind knotted with things she couldn’t say out loud, desire for change, fear for James’ health and a growing headache that had begun to work its way around the eyes as she called out, "Are you okay?"
Now look at this image of the the Lorax from the Dr Seuss book of the same name:

Doesn't his expression convey something similar, anger, concern, frustration, a hint of tireness, and maybe a sense of being small, helpless and still in charge to an extent all in one glance? It helps that Dr Seuss supports this amazing image with some cracking text:

He was shortish. And oldish.
And brownish. And mossy.
And he spoke with a voice
that was sharpish and bossy.
An example of powerful characterisation? I'll say. There are classic examples of characterisation here with the antogonist/protagonist relationship strengthened by using the antagonist as contrite narrator trying to make good - a character arc if ever there was. All of this is supported by Dr Seuss's colourful imagery, which has stayed with me from childhood like other characters including those of Maurice Sendak.
 Who, for example, could forget Little Bear and his mother. The care, the very human concern of the mother (and just the tiniest hint of exasperation - after all, mother is busy as all mothers are), and the hat, which mother provided him to keep him warm. Yes, all the elements of characterisation can be conveyed in images, in brief hints of text, using rhyme as Dr Seuss does, personification, onomatopoeia, allusion, imagery, all the poetic techniques are in play, and strengthened by the visual.

So how do you do this in your work? Just stick to the basics. Know your characters, develop them with both explicit and implicit qualities, from the superficial and quirky, to the deep and universal. Show the reader who they are through nuance and action, detail, dialogue and description, just as we might get to know someone we meet at a party for the first time. Let us come to love your picture book characters as we would the characters in a novel and you'll have produced a work that will remain with the reader into adulthood.

Magdalena Ball is the author of the newly released character rich novel Black Cow. Grab a a free mini flip book of the book here:
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Friday, 24 February: Educationtipster
Tuesday, 28 February: Nancy Famolari
Friday, 2nd March: Boychik Lit
Monday, 5 March: Slow and Steady Writers
Tuesday, 6 March: World of Ink Network (radio show)
Thursday, 8 March: The Alliterative Allomorph
Saturday, 10 March: Writers on the Move
Monday, 12 March: WOTM Webinar workshop
Thursday, 15 March: Heidi M. Thomas
Friday, 19 March: The Simplicity Collective
Tuesday, 20 March: The Dark Phantom
Wednesday, 21 March: Do North
Thursday, 26 April: A Book and a Chat radio show

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Unknown said...

Very nice post, indeed. I enjoyed reading it and learned from it, too. Thanks!

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Love the use of the pictures--remembering them in context is definitely going to help my textual characterization.
I'd never thought of it so visually before.

Unknown said...

Thanks for stopping by ladies.

I'm going to my first writers conference today. i'll check back later.

Magdalena Ball said...

Thanks Kathy for hosting me today, and thanks to Nancy and Annie for your comments. Annie, you make a good point that it works the other way too. For textual characterisation, it often helps to have a visual image in mind.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Great post. As a picture book writer it try to remember allow room for the pictures to tell things I just hinted at.

Mayra Calvani said...

Great post, Maggie.
One way to develop deep characterization is two give the MC two problems/dilemmas. One inner and one outer, and sometimes these are in conflict with each other. For example, what the MC wants isn't necessarily what she/he needs. And it's this realization towards the end what makes a good arc.

Institute of Africana Cosmology said...

this is a very informative post!
i know some little ones who may want me to read this book to them!

Donna McDine said...

I enjoyed this post, especially the visuals and examples to go along with. Wishing you a wonderful tour!

darvintrrs05 said...
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Karen Cioffi said...

Maggie, great post. I love reading your information about writing - it's always so informative!

Have an 'out of the ball park' tour!