Picture books, protagonists, and the wonder that is Kevin Henkes – Part 2

In part 1 I introduced Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae – three of Henkes’ creations. It appears as though, in each of these stories, he breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing for children: that the protagonist should solve his or her own problem. But there is still emotional resonance in them – how did he do this? Perhaps the protagonist is not who we think they are…

Conventionally, the protagonist of the story is introduced first.  His or her desire is shown to us upfront along with a concrete

Owen

Owen

problem they have to solve.  They overcome obstacles that stand in their way, and they resolve the problem.  In Owen, the reader sees how important the blanket is to him through text and pictures.  We see that the parents don’t mind that he carries around this blanket, judging by their neutral expressions on the third page.  The parents are introduced into the text on the fourth page, along with Mrs. Tweezers, and suddenly Owen has a problem, but so do the parents.  Could they be the protagonists of this story?

Like typical protagonists, the parents try to resolve the problem, and each attempt fails.  Then the mother gets the idea to cut up the blanket.  She solves the problem.  And so it seems that two possibilities exist:  1) Owen is not the true protagonist.  This story is about the adults and how they are influenced by Mrs. Tweezers, but how they care enough for Owen to find a creative solution to the problem, or 2) there are two protagonists, and as long as one of them solves the problem the ending is satisfying.

Sheila Rae, The Brave

Sheila Rae, The Brave

It seems that Henkes did a similar thing with the story of Sheila Rae.  The sister, Louise, isn’t mentioned in the text until the sixth page, but the reader can see her astonishment at the bravery of Sheila Rae in the illustrations from the first page.  Louise has her own story that is only visible from the pictures – she wishes she could be as brave as Sheila Rae.  When Sheila Rae needs her, she’s there, and she shows that she really is brave by leading the way home.  Again, the possibilities are that 1) Sheila Rae is not the true protagonist, Louise is, or 2) there are two protagonists and the resolution by one of them results in a satisfying ending.  As Owen and Sheila Rae both have their own set of desires and are introduced early in the story, as is the norm for the protagonist, the second possibility deserves further investigation.

In tomorrow’s final instalment, we’ll look more closely at that second possibility, and at what Robert McKee calls “plural protagonists.

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I am not my character.

In Tristan Poehlmann’s February 25th blog post (http://figurings.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/whose-story-are-you-telling/), he said:

. . . If we aren’t honest with ourselves and with our audience, our characters don’t matter. They become stand-ins for our own beliefs, fantasies, and realities. They don’t exist on their own terms. They don’t feel their emotions or achieve their goals–they feel our emotions and achieve our goals. Who they are, or might have been, ceases to exist. Characters come to us with stories to tell. If we don’t write these stories around the truths of these characters, then we aren’t honestly telling their stories.

In this insightful post Tristan discussed Tarantino’s inability to inhabit his character (Django) and do him justice, and cautioned writers against doing the same. Sometimes after I read hearty stuff like this and take in the key points, my mind starts spinning off in all sorts of  directions, making a whole bunch of other applications. This time, my mind spun off into a variation I see a lot of in my own writing, especially in the early draft stages. It is a conundrum that locks me right up and is no good at all for my creative output: where do I end, and my characters begin?

It seems to me that writing fiercely is all about being incredibly open to anything that might appear on the page. All the raw emotions, all the crazy sidetracks and detours your brain takes when you are trying to tell that story. Some of what appears on the page is real and true to your character. And some of it – let’s face it – is your own crap. And when you’re being open like that, you might need to do some sorting: what, on that page, is your crap, and what actually belongs to your character?

My writer-friend Mary Pleiss and I were griping about the perception some non-writers have of our characters – that they must be us in some form, be venting our baggage, be stand-ins for our own histories. We looked at each other and said, in unison, “I am not my character!” and it quickly became our inside joke. The thing is, sometimes I need to say this line to myself not because it’s true. Sometimes I need to say it to myself because there’s a danger that it ISN’T true. Because my own stuff does get thrown on to the page. Sometimes I do let my own crap take over my characters.

When Tristan cautioned writers about this very thing, he concluded,

It’s OK if that happens, but then we need to figure out whose story we are actually telling. Is it a character we thought was secondary? Is it our perception of what we would do if we were that character? If so, we need to be honest about that. We need to rethink. We need to rewrite.

If we can’t live inside a character’s head, then we are not doing them a favor in trying to write their story.

Bottom line: I think it’s inevitable that our own stuff is going to get thrown in with our characters, especially in the early stages of our writing. We need to be honest with ourselves about that, but not let it hold us back or lock us up. Instead, we need to get to know our characters better.

How can we go about this? I am reminded of some direction my writer-friend Graeme Burk gave me when I was having this crisis a few months back.* He said (and I quote him loosely here), “What about your character is different from you? Where does she live? Who is in her family? What does she like? What doesn’t she like? Think of all the ways she is not you.” What Graeme was suggesting was pretty much the same thing Tristan concluded: you’ve got to live inside your character’s head in order to write their story.

So I’m going to stop worrying about that conundrum of where I end and where my character begins. Instead, Mary, let me suggest an addendum to our mantra:

I am not my character. I will develop her so fully that I couldn’t possibly be.

If I keep my focus on that, it will be her story and not mine on the page.

* writer-friends are indispensible. They’ll pull you in off the ledge. A shout out to Tristan, Mary, Graeme, Ingrid (my most-recent ledge-puller-inner) and all my Dystropians!