Sunday, August 4, 2013

Kirby Larson: Creating Characters through Figurative Language

Kirby Larson is the Newbery-honor-winning author of HATTIE BIG SKY, along with many other beloved books.  She's multi-talented, writing everything from nonfiction picture books to historical middle grade novels.

She talked to a beyond-capacity room about taking one-dimensional words and turning them into three-dimensional actors in our books.

She talked about the manipulations we make as writers to buy our readers' time--along with the risks we have of creating characters who feel nothing more than pawns.

Memorable characters are ornery, lively, funny, disobedient,  persistent, she said. They return from the store with a dog instead of the macaroni they were supposed to buy, for example.

Kirby quoted Mary Oliver's Poetry Handbook: "In figurative language, a familiar thing is linked to an unknown thing as a key to unlock the mystery or part of the mystery that is unknown."

Your character is one of the unknowns and you can use figurative language to unlock that mystery, Kirby says. When Kirby was writing Hattie Big Sky, she read everything from 1918 she could get her hands on: letters, newspaper stories, memoirs. This was so she could her understand her character's voice, which is essential to the story.

No matter what, research is going to be part of your process, even if you're not writing historical. This is because our characters have interests that we don't.

"I spend so much time researching, you can't even believe it," Kirby said. "But it really pays off. I'm able to ground myself in the world and the character."

Vocabulary is the key building block to creating figurative language. Kirby wrote letters as Hattie to almost all of the characters in the book. She also wrote a form of poetry called a cinquain. These things didn't end up in the book, but they helped her understand her characters.

She also talked to us about illusions and analogies, giving examples from a variety of books, including BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE by Kate DiCamillo and ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky.

Her breakout session was every bit as charming as her books (even if we had to sit on the floor). 

Kirby Larson's website

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