Memorable Characters in Middle Grade Fiction:
What Makes a Character Unforgettable?
The memorable characters of middle grade fiction have their own voice, they struggle desperately to get what they want, and they are often filled with contradictions. Such characters leap off the page through their actions, dialogue, and internal emotions. How do authors create memorable characters? This essay attempts to answer that question with the assistance of four very different protagonists: Gilly Hopkins, Lonnie Collins Motion, Claudia Kincaid, and Stuart Little.
In The Great Gilly Hopkins, when the uncontrollable, stubborn, and emotionally wounded Gilly is sent to yet another foster home, she hatches a plan to make her real mother come to her rescue. Readers first meet Gilly in chapter one when she is traveling by car with her social worker, Miss Ellis, to yet another foster home. Without providing a physical description or introducing Gilly’s voice in dialogue, Paterson creates a complicated main character by showing Gilly’s actions and inner life. In response to Miss Ellis’s pep talk encouraging good behavior at Trotter’s, the latest foster home, Gilly pops her bubble gum, gets it stuck in her hair, and leaves it plastered under the car door handle for the next passenger. Notice Gilly’s reaction when Miss Ellis asks her to try to get off on the right foot with Trotter:
“Gilly had a vision of herself sailing around the living room … on her right foot like an ice skater. With her uplifted left foot, she was shoving the next foster mother square in the mouth.” (3)
By the end of chapter one, readers are already in the presence of an unforgettable character, the defiant and imaginative Galadrial Hopkins.
As Paterson’s characterization of Gilly continues, new, contradictory characteristics emerge. Careless Gilly, who hacks off her hair with scissors to remove the gum with terrible results, is also the organized Gilly: she straightens the books on her neighbor, Mr. Randolph’s shelves. And the repellant Gilly also reveals a softer side. She feels “strangely shy” about touching Mr. Randolph’s books. “It was almost as if she were meddling in another person’s brain.” (40) And in spite of her best intentions to scare and drive away William Ernest, her little foster brother, Gilly befriends him by teaching him to read books and make paper airplanes. For a moment Gilly’s soft, vulnerable side slips out when Trotter thanks her for helping with the paper airplanes: “the [proud, loving] look on Trotter’s face was the one Gilly had, in some deep part of her, longed to see all her life.” (62) But Gilly quickly recoils from the compliment back to her stubborn, conniving self. The push and pull of conflicting emotions adds to the complexity of Gilly’s character.
Like Gilly, Lonnie, in Locomotion, is a multi-dimensional character. Lonnie has a heart-rending story. After his parents are killed in a fire, Lonnie and his sister are separated and placed in different homes. But it is not Lonnie’s traumatic situation that makes him a memorable character. Woodson displays her mastery as an author by giving Lonnie a perceptive voice and unique worldview. These are what linger in the reader’s mind long after Locomotion has been returned to the shelf. Lonnie would be complex even if his family was still intact and his biggest yearning in life were to write a satisfying poem.
Locomotion is a novel told in verse. Lonnie’s teacher encourages him to tell his story in poetry because “poetry’s short” (1) Lonnie tells us, and he can get his story down in bits before it overwhelms and silences him. Through his poems, Lonnie emerges as a sensitive, thoughtful, and observant boy. He gives us this glimpse of himself before the fire:
Mama came running out the kitchen
drying her hands on her jeans
When she saw us just sitting there, she let out a breath
Oh, my Lord, she said,
I thought you’d dropped my baby.
Was I ever your baby, Mama?
and Mama looked at me all warm and smiley.
You still are, she said.
Then she went back to the kitchen. (5–6)
Already, before the devastating fire that changes Lonnie’s life but not who he is, readers sense Lonnie’s gentle nature. His sensitivity is later revealed when he writes, for example, about his classmate, Eric, who is “tall and a little bit mean” (22). Lonnie witnesses Eric outside of school, singing in a church choir, and observes that “Eric’s voice was like something / that didn’t seem like it should belong / to Eric. / Seemed like it should be coming out of an angel.” (23) If the only side of Lonnie’s character were his sensitivity, readers would soon get bored. In a later scene between Lonnie and Eric,Lonnie’s sensitivity is contrasted with his envy of Eric’s leather jacket. Such juxtapositions of seemingly contradicting traits appear over and over again in Locomotion and serve to deepen Lonnie’s character.
Lonnie’s quest for understanding the world outside of school, family, and friends further adds to the complexity of his character. Lonnie lives with Miss Edna, one of whose sons is fighting in a war. Lonnie shows his understanding of the far-reaching effects of war in this stanza:
The war’s on the other side of the world.
But Jenkins is fighting in it.
And Miss Edna’s praying about it.
So I guess it’s the same as if it was right here
in our city
in our house
in Miss Edna’s room
Throughout the book Lonnie also grapples with his beliefs about God. In church, on Easter Sunday, Lonnie asks a question about Jesus that is at once innocently childlike and worldly wise. “Was it a big sacrifice to give your life / if you knew you was gonna rise back up? / I mean, isn’t that like just taking a nap?” (81) Giving hints at Lonnie’s belief system is another way Woodson adds depth and interest to Lonnie.
What about a character who has suffered a trauma no bigger than the perceived injustice of being the oldest child and only girl in the family of four siblings? That character is Claudia Kincaid in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Claudia’s motivation to run away from home “had to do with the sameness of each and every week” (6), which includes both emptying the dishwasher and setting the table while her brothers do nothing. With Konigsburg’s page-turning plot and clever setting, this novel could easily have been an entertaining and satisfying read. What makes Mixed-up Files a Newbery Award winner, however, is plot and setting plus memorable characters (among other components not subjects of this essay such as tone and changing points of view).
While other children may scheme to run away, Claudia takes it one step further: she escapes her monotonous and unjust home life by running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia is determined and competent, but she’s not so self-sufficient that she doesn’t invite along a companion, her younger brother, Jamie. Once in the museum, Claudia’s particular actions reflect her meticulous character.
From the beginning readers know that Claudia “didn’t like discomfort.” (5) At the museum she chooses a bed with a “tall canopy, supported by an ornately carved headboard … and two gigantic posts” (37–38) because “she had always known she was meant for fine things.” (3) Later, Claudia takes powdered soap from the restroom, grinds it into a paper towel, and uses it to take a bath in the museum restaurant’s fountain because she “can’t stand one night more without a bath.” (80) She insists that Jamie and she have clean underwear every day. Rather than introducing traits to conflict with Claudia’s fastidiousness, Konigsburg keeps providing more examples, building on this behavior to develop the Claudia as a memorable character.
Claudia’s dialogue gives readers a clear sense of who she is. When Claudia explains to Jamie why she chose him as her companion, she says, “I’ve picked you to accompany me on the greatest adventure of our mutual lives.” (13) She refers to hiding in the museum’s bathroom stalls as “manning their stations.” (45) After a satisfying discussion with Jamie about homesickness, Claudia feels older. She tells her brother, “But, of course, that’s mostly because I’ve been the older child forever. And I’m extremely well adjusted.” (87) “Never call people dead; it makes others feel bad. Say ‘deceased’ or ‘passed away,’” (154) Claudia instructs Jamie when he refers to Mrs. Frankweiler’s husband as ‘dead.’ These, and many other instances of Claudia’s dialogue convey Claudia as the formal, righteous, and inimitable character she is.
A discussion of memorable characters in middle grade fiction wouldn’t be complete without representation from the animal kingdom. Stuart Little is one of the most memorable characters in the history of children’s literature. Undoubtedly, Stuart’s physical attributes have something to do with this. Although born to a human couple, Stuart “was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, and a mouse’s whiskers”. (1–2) In short, Stuart Little is a mouse. The premise of anarticulate mouse interacting in a human world makes for a memorable story; but Stuart is also a memorable mouse.
Though Stuart takes great care with his morning toilet including touching “his toes ten times every morning to keep himself in good condition” (13), he doesn’t hesitate to go down the slimy bathtub drain in search of his mother’s lost ring. Stuart puts loyalty to family above pride in appearance. One would think that such a well-mannered and well-turned out mouse would be modest or humble. Not so! Note how Stuart taunts his nemesis, the cat Snowbell:
“As for exercise, I take all I can get. I bet my stomach muscles are firmer than yours.”
“I bet they’re not,” said the cat.
“I bet they are,” said Stuart. “They’re like iron bands.” (18)
Later, Stuart becomes indignant when a bus driver makes disparaging comments about his size. Stuart has no trouble sticking up for himself: “I didn’t come on this bus to be insulted,” he tells the conductor. Stuart takes his job as captain of the schooner Wasp seriously, but no so seriously as to let go of the ship’s wheel for a second and to do a little dance. Stuart is a self-respecting, responsible mouse who takes time to enjoy life.
Readers find it easy to admire and root for this diminutive hero. On another level we are deeply moved by Stuart’s emotional yearnings. His sorrow when his beloved bird friend, Margalo, leaves Stuart’s home is palpable. “Stuart was heartbroken. He had no appetite, refused food, and lost weight.”(72–73) He decides to run away in pursuit of Margalo without saying good-bye to his family. Pulling a strand of his mother’s hair from her comb as a souvenir, Stuart goes in search of Margalo and to seek his fortune.
Underlying all the entertaining adventures on his trip (of which there are many) is a deep sense of loss and longing. After a disastrous date with Harriet Ames when his canoe is destroyed and all goes awry, readers understand Stuart’s tantrum at Harriet’s suggestion that they pretend they are fishing: “I don’t want to pretend I’m fishing,” cried Stuart, desperately. “Besides, look at that mud! Look at it!” He was screaming now. (122)
Stuart continues his journey. At book’s end “…the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.” (131) With Stuart, readers will hang onto that hope, but not without a deep sense of melancholy that will haunt readers’ hearts forever.
Prolific children’s author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor says, “the physical description of the character alone will not bring him to life. … Readers need to hear how he sounds when he talks, to see how his body moves when he walks, how he relates to the members of his family.” (49) She encourages writers to choose the right details about their characters, ones that give hints to his to personality and the life he has lived. Establishing a “few specifics about his looks and a habit or two may be all readers need to form a mental picture.” (49) Moving a character in and out of scenes, concentrating on the feelings, actions, and dialogue particular to that character is essential to creating a memorable character.
Paterson, Woodson, Konigsburg, and White all show that this to be true. Gilly’s actions and inner life are particular to Gilly. Her character displays many contradictory emotions. Lonnie’s voice and his way of looking at the world could only belong to Lonnie. Claudia moves in and out of scenes, always the determined, organized, and careful girl that only Claudia can be. But it is Stuart the eloquent mouse who illuminates most clearly what is central to creating a memorable character and what all these characters have in common: intense yearning. Yearning for family, yearning to be safe, yearning to love and be loved. Each character in his or her own particular way longs for these basic human needs. When authors succeed in bringing an individual character’s longing to the page, that longing goes straight to a reader’s heart, and that character will never be forgotten.
Konigsburg, E.L. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Simon and
Naylor, Phyllis Reynold. The Craft of Writing the Novel. Originally published by The Writer, Inc. of Boston, 1989
Paterson, Katherine. The Great Gilly Hopkins. HarperCollins, 1978
White, E.B. Stuart Little. Harper & Row, 1945
Woodson, Jacqueline. Locomotion. G. P. Putnam’s, 2003