When one of my nephews he was first learning to read , he fell in love with a book called Flat Stanley. Flat Stanley (the book) went everywhere my nephew went for months. Flat Stanley was something of a fixture in our lives. We were once stuck in a restaurant for hours while the bus boys dismantled a booth to recover Flat Stanley, which had fallen under the cushions and into the base of the booth. There were power tools involved. And tears. The child was seriously attached to the book.
Flat Stanley (the character) is a little boy who was crushed by a falling bulleting board while he was innocently sleeping. As a result of this dreadful accident, he is now four feet tall and one inch thick. You'd think this would pose a problem, but Flat Stanley gets to have lots of adventures that children of regular thickness don't get to have.
Quick writing exercise -- if you had a character of these dimensions, what would you do with him? Name three things Flat Stanley could do in your book that the other characters could not do.
In the book, Flat Stanley gets to slide under closed doors, and fly in the sky like a kite, and get mailed in an envelope to his vacation destination. Did any of these possibilities occur to you? Kid-lit authors tend to be very adept at taking a single notion and playing it out to extremes. I've always thought Flat Stanley was the perfect example of that. One attribute, flatness, is explored in an imaginative and (dare we say it?) in-depth manner. By the end of the book, you understand completely what effect flatness would have on a person's life.
Flat Stanley's Two Lessons For Adult Writers
Flat Stanley is not what adult readers would call a *cough*cough* well-rounded character. He has a single, central characteristic that governs his activities through the entire story. This is not to say the story is bad. It's excellent, in fact, and the characters are perfect for kid-lit. But adult readers have different expecations of characters.
Nevertheless, in Stanley's flatness are two lessons for us.
First, if you are going to give your character a unique or strong characteristic, you'd better exploit it. (Stanley doesn't look flat and act round.)
Second, exploit it in ways that are unexpected. (Stanley's flatness creates some surprising results.)
I can't tell you how many times I've read manuscripts that drew careful portraits of an important character, but never leveraged those portraits. Lord Sneerlip, we are told, is a villain of power and influence who can destroy entire families with a single cutting glance. Aha, we think gleefully, and settle in to see what kind of damage good old Sneerlip will do. And we read, and we wait. And read and wait some more. But Sneerlip never does anything to prove his power until the very last scene when he kidnaps the heroine and tries to force her to marry him. yawn
A smart writer knows that not only must she exploit the power and influence of Lord Sneerlip, but she must exercise it repeatedly, in unexpected ways, and at the worst possible moments. So if Sneerlip has a grudge against the family of Priscilla Bluestocking, and if Prissy's goal is to get vouchers to Almack's, what should Sneerlip do? (For those of you who don't read Regencies, Almack's was the place for a society debutante to go, and vouchers -- entry tickets -- were tightly controlled.)
The author with little control over the text will probably not let Sneerlip make trouble at all. After all, she reasons, the purpose of the scene at Almack's is to let Prissy Bluestocking meet His Grace, the Duke of Hotstuff, her ultimate hero, who scandalizes all of England by spiking the warm lemonade with vodka. Oh, Hotstuff, you dangerous rogue, you! But Sneerlip isn't necessary in this scene and doesn't appear until the end, when he kidnaps Prissy and forces Hotstuff into the role of rescuer.
A slightly more mindful author will have Sneerlip cancel the Almack's vouchers for Prissy Bluestocking and her entire family. After all, she reasons, if Sneerlip is the villain, and vouchers are the goal, then the villain should interfere with that goal. Right? Well...okay. It's better, but is that really the best we can do?
Of course not. An inventive author, an author who wins the hearts and minds of readers, starts wondering what else a villain of power and influence might do here. She gets creative. She starts thinking about how Sneerlip might screw up a night at Almack's for Prissy. Maybe he schedules a secret night of decadence so that no eligible men are at Almack's that night. Maybe everyone shows up, and Sneerlip cuts Prissy and her family, damaging her standing and marital prospects. Maybe he forces her to dance with him three times -- oh, the scandal! Maybe he feeds her several cups of vodka-spiked lemonade and invites her to declaim on the cultivation of marigolds to a group of bored and disgusted dandies. Really, the possibilities are endless.
And that's exactly the point. The possibilities are endless. Don't settle for simple, trite renditions of a character trait when the liveliness of your plot hinges on your inventiveness. Exploit what you've already set up.
What else might Sneerlip do to interfere with Prissy Bluestocking's success at Almack's? Come on now -- if Flat Stanley can fly like a kite, surely Sneerlip can do something inventive, too!