BROKEN SHELLS: Thoughts on Creating Compelling Characters

On our beach vacation, I woke early each morning to go shell hunting. I hoped to find perfectly formed shells, like the ones my grandmother collected. Instead, all I found were broken shells. At first, I was disappointed, then I spied the heart of a broken conch shell and it was love at first sight. Only the innermost swirl remained – smooth and glowing – a survivor of the sea. For the rest of the week, I collected just broken shells – each chipped and worn in its own special way – striking testaments to fantastic journeys of survival in churning seas and crashing tides.

Good characters are a lot like broken shells. If their situation is perfect and/or they have no flaws, they’ve got no reason to grow or change. Then we, as readers, have no great incentive to read their stories. We probably won’t even be able to connect to them because, face it, nobody’s perfect. Broken characters, by contrast, strike a chord deep in readers’ hearts. They give us hope that we too can overcome whatever challenges we face despite, or maybe even because of, our flaws.

This is even true of picture books. Would the classic Curious George books be such kid-hits if that little monkey weren’t so incorrigibly nosy? More recently, would David Shannon’s NO, DAVID, NO! touch the hearts of mothers and sons as deeply, if little David weren’t so perpetually in trouble? And what about Peggy Parish’s forever bumbling Amelia Bedelia, or Bernard Waber’s lovable Lyle, the crocodile, whose sickly green jealousy in LYLE AND THE BIRTHDAY PARTY touches a chord in every kid’s heart. The list of inspiringly imperfect and thus lovable picture book characters goes on and on.

My collection of broken shells now sits in a bowl by my desk, a striking reminder that the best characters we create, the ones that survive in our collective memories, are those that aren’t perfect. Thus, as a writer, I aspire to imperfection in my characters. What about you?

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18 thoughts on “BROKEN SHELLS: Thoughts on Creating Compelling Characters

  1. Excellent (and beautiful!) analogy, Laura! You are so right about broken characters – they are the ones we love and relate to. And I hadn’t thought about it this way before, but it’s true that if they’re perfect they have no incentive to change… and there is no story!

  2. Great comparison, Laura! My kids always get fascinated by misbehaving characters in books — I actually wish there were more of them. We need characters who “make mischief of one sort and another.”

  3. I love this pretty comparison. 🙂 And, yes, I’m with you on the whole aspiring to create imperfect characters thing. They’re so much more relatable!!!

    (And I’m hopping over from Kristen Evey’s blog. It’s lovely to meet you. :0))

  4. Absolutely on imperfection in my characters-just read MARSHALL CAVENDISH HOME FOR BOYS AND GIRLS and oh my talk about a character with flaws. They are huge, the kind of huge that could make you dislike her a whole lot. And yet the author gets you to like her, love her, cheer her on! No small feat that.

  5. This is beautiful, and also a great reminder. In my own life I tend to be too much of a perfectionist, but when I read books, I definitely want characters with imperfections. Because, really, I can try as much as I want, but I’ll never be perfect. Thank you for this!

  6. What a great way to associate broken shells with imperfect characters! I love that and will definitely remember it. And you so right that it’s the broken characters that are the most intriguing. No wants to read about a character that is absolutely perfect. What’s the fun in that!

  7. What a great way to think about this subject, Laura! I love the “No, David” books, and when I was a child, Russell Hoban’s “Frances” books always struck a chord with me — I would run away under the dining room table and be willful and stubborn like Frances, but she helped me feel like I wasn’t being “bad.” Those broken seashells are a lovely reminder of what we strive to do as writers.

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