Friday, August 10, 2012

Making series characters grow over time

Did the comic strip and cartoon characters of your childhood grow up or stay forever the same? Archie and Veronica never left high school; Pebbles and Bam-bam never got older. Charlie Brown and his friends had baby brothers and sisters who grew into childhood, but no one ever advanced beyond that. The same is true today of many characters in kids' books today.  Zack of The Zack Files is always ten years old.  Andrew of the Andrew Lost adventures stays a child.  But the Harry Potter series brought us heroes and heroines who grew older, turned into adolescents, and faced more complex challenges, external and internal, than just battling the bad guys.

When I started writing LOST IN LEXICON, I thought it would be a stand-alone book like The Phantom Tollbooth.  I planned an adventure with a full arc of the hero's journey, even including a visit to the underworld of electronic addiction.  Because of that, I didn't hold back any new tricks with words or numbers for a second visit, a decision that I think made Lexicon's Land of Morning rich and layered.

Originally, I thought Ivan and Daphne might visit all four quadrants of Lexicon on their only visit to the magical land. But as the pages pounded out of my printer, I realized my characters would only have time to visit two quadrants. At once the notion of a sequel skulked in the near distance.  As the two kids climb up inside the hollow mountain to find their friend the Astronomer, they come to a narrow, windowed room from which they can see all four quadrants of the country.  The glimpse of lands they'd like to visit, "Maybe someday," becomes a promise to young readers of more to come.

Once an author decides to write a sequel, the questions of growth and change need answers. For young characters, that means not only deciding whether their age and grade have changed, but also thinking about the world they live in.  LOST IN LEXICON is a book about innocence, about two young adolescents entering a fantasy world to search for lost children and return them to their home.  At the same time, the protagonists regain some of their own childlike wonder, and even as they take on more responsibility they turn away from the commercially-driven rush to false early consumerist adolescence that seems to dominate our world.

But in ICE CASTLE, Ivan and Daphne are older. Only three months older, it's true, but as I wrote, it seemed to me time to give them more depth and let them differentiate more. I let them inhabit a darker and more problematic world, both on "our" side and on the Lexicon side of the barn cupola.  Aunt Adelaide is very ill, perhaps dying, and in the quadrant of Lexicon they enter, the Land of Winter, harshness and oppression vie with beauty. I provide another, younger cousin, Lila, who still moves with the unconscious acceptance of her surroundings that characterizes childhood, and I made Daphne resentful of her. While she sails along accepting adulation and privilege, Daphne and Ivan question,  argue, take stands, and suffer for their beliefs. Daphne even quietly falls in love for the first time.

Adolescence is also a time when kids differentiate. I allowed ( and the plot required) Ivan and Daphne to separate.  For long periods of time the main characters can't reach one another.  LOST IN LEXICON alternated chapters between Daphne's and Ivan's points of view, but they traveled through the book together.  In ICE CASTLE, three main characters have to face dangers and solve problems alone, with communication between them only fragmented and incomplete.

Thus I found that not only did my characters change, but so did the challenges they faced and even the world they inhabited.  That resonates with the way I experienced the world as a young teenager.  I wanted to feel the same inside, but the world around me kept changing.

Now I'm working on the third Lexicon book, THE FLOATING HARBOR, and Ivan and Daphne are changing again. Entering the fourth quadrant of Lexicon, they come up against death and the hidden stories of people's lives.  Everything the encounter, even the nature of Lexicon itself, is more complex and fragile than it once seemed.   While I hope to fill THE FLOATING HARBOR with some of the same whimsy and magic as the first two books, ultimately it will be more about psychological growth than about playing with words, numbers, music and art.


Marva Dasef said...

I definitely saw that growth between Lexicon and Ice Castle. The third book is on my TBR, of course.

In my own series, the kids certainly have to grow and change. I think my secondary character, who starts out as a 12-year-old, definitely grows the most. A boy becomes an almost man by the end of the 3rd book and is left with a heavy burden hanging over him. Leaving it open for a 4th book, of course!

Anonymous said...

Any word on when the next book will be out? My daughter loved the first two, and wants to read more. :)

pelhamhoyt said...

I am enjoying the series so much! When does The Floating Harbor come out?
PS After I read Lexicon, I sent it to a colleague in Australia who revels in multi-level meanings.
The Ice Castle is going to Seattle to a colleague who is trapped by health problems, but earlier spent his whole life in music and the collection of ancient Cadilacs.

Penny said...

Thanks for the comments. The Floating Harbor has fallen victim to other projects (Tumblehome Learning, the G.A.S. series, an upcoming book on women scientists) and to the disappointing sales of The Ice Castle. My publisher was just not that excited about the book. When things slow down a little, I may come back to it.


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