I love it when other authors admit to human failings! And so it was with the talented, Morris Gleitzman – one of Australia’s most loved writers of middle-grade fiction. Gleitzman was the star attraction at the Children’s and Young Adult (CYA) writing conference in Brisbane. I was curious to know what he had to say about character partly because many of his characters have a bit of a sameness to them but also because so many writing gurus regard character as the holy grail. So, with a bit of probing from yours-truly, it turns out that Gleitzman starts his works with a problem, rather than character.
Now, as someone who loves dreaming up crazy plots but struggles with character, this was music to my ears. Once he’s decided on the problem – which may range from being on a train on your way to a death camp in Nazi Germany (Once) to figuring out how to stop your Mum getting pregnant again (Bumface) – then he throws in some positive qualities. Gleitzman reveals that it’s important for his main characters to be optimistic, imaginative and creative thinkers with good hearts. When they’re faced with dilemmas “they pretty much do what I would do”.
“But I sometimes have a character make a mistake or have a moment of doubt or fear. Sometimes you have to let characters fail for their own good,” he says. “Problems are opportunities for growth and development so even if the problem’s not solved, the character comes out in better shape.”
He also likes playing with the notion that as a character tries to solve a problem, they actually make the problem bigger. And while he brings characters close to despair – he won’t let them sink.
“In a story where the character’s not going to solve the problem, the worst outcome is if they’re mentally defeated,” he says. “To have them come close to that underscores how challenging the thing is they’re facing – this creates dramatic tension.”