Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The One and Only Ivan: Making Characters Unique

With seven Newbery-award-winning books under my belt already, I finally read the 2013 winner, The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.

image from betterinbulk.net

I've joked in previous posts that clearly the trick to winning a Newbery is to write a book about a tween or teen uprooted from his or her home because of some family tragedy. Applegate's book puts a spin on this formula - a gorilla named Ivan is uprooted from his home because of some family tragedy.

Ivan has been part of a mall circus exhibit, the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, for 27 years. He has accepted his fate, but when Ruby, a baby elephant arrives, Ivan decides this is no place for an animal to spend its life. He concocts a plan. He is going to free Ruby so that she can grow up in a zoo with other elephants.

Applegate creates a unique character by telling the story from the first-person perspective of a gorilla. To that end, she has written in a short, choppy style with chapters rarely lasting more than a couple pages, and sometimes just a couple sentences.

The lesson for my own writing is to find a way to make a character unique. That isn't always as easy as writing from the persective of a gorilla, but uniqueness can be achieved because of a character's unique circumstances or unique perspective. In Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and its in-progress sequel, I have been able to tell the story of King Arthur from the perspective of a mouse. As I write my next story, Abigail's Atlantis, my challenge is to find what makes the main character unique.

It is the challenge all writers must undertake - give readers a new experience through the uniqueness of the character, the circumstances, or perspective. After all, if the story isn't unique, what is the point in telling it?

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