In BBL’s case, the names came first. Nice, simple, short, phonetic names. A name can conjure up all sorts of ideas about what kind of person they are. Names have a lot of different associations for us, and associations are everything when you are writing something this big from the ground up.
Once we had good names, we wrote detailed physical and personality descriptions for each character. For example:
“Kat is a beautiful, Nordic-looking, 10-year-old, blue-eyed blonde girl with a short straight bob hairstyle. Kat is the group’s pragmatist - she has a keen sense of time, and is a good organizer. Kat is an excellent artist and is a whizz at mathematics. Kat’s parents are divorced and she lives with her mother at...Kat likes...and dislikes...” And so on, in considerable fine detail.
Judy then asked her stable of illustrators to do some drawings of the characters. It really helps to actually see them “in the flesh” on the page. With much help from the always fashionable and up-to-date ladies at mpi, we then fine tuned the way they looked - making sure we had a good mix of ethnicities, looks, hairstyles, appropriate fashion, and so on.
We gave them families - brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents - and pets, teachers, neighbors, friends...even enemies - all with some background.
Judy had the most important ones (teachers, of course!) illustrated, and we fine-tuned them, too.
We gave the parents jobs and backgrounds. For example, Ben’s father, Mike Wade, owns a sports store. He is a former professional football player. Ben’s mother, Tina, is a lawyer at the firm Benson, Cobb and Carter.
While they don’t quite make the characters rise up and take over the story, these details do determine much of how a character is likely to act, how they will talk, what they like and dislike.
Once we were happy with the characters, we got a really big piece of paper and drew a detailed map of the town of Parkdale. We tried to include everything we could think of that a town needs - roads, schools, universities, hospitals, businesses, industry, shopping centers, gyms, parks, clubs, housing estates, apartments, and we gave absolutely everything names.
Finally, after months, it was time to start writing.
Even though they were only 200-250 words and 20 pages long, the level 4 stories were by far the hardest to write. It’s no exaggeration to say that I would much rather write two 3,000 word level 9 stories, than a write a single level 4 story again.
In these early stories we had to introduce the main characters, and some of the important secondary characters. We had to set things up properly for the stories to follow. We also had to get the look of the characters, their school and town, right. Level 4 was the foundation for the remaining books in the series.
What made them difficult was that the stories were very short. The number of allowable headwords was tiny, the usable grammar was horribly limited. Sometimes it felt like trying to do a landscape painting with only a single tube of paint. White paint.
As I toiled on level 4, I waited patiently for those characters to start taking over and do the writing for me, but it didn’t happen for a long time. Terrible! After all I had done for them. In fact, they seemed obstinately determined to obstruct any plots that I came up with.
Level 5 was easier. Just a little. By level 6 I was actually starting to enjoy it. The characters had become a lot more co-operative, and some of them had almost become my friends. (Although I don’t like that Eric - and don’t think I ever will.)
By now I could see that it is indeed true that characters can determine the possibilities and directions for a story. They don’t quite pull your hands of the keyboard and start rioting, but if you have a situation where a character has to do something, you just know, “well, Kat would simply never do that,” or, “Ben always does this when that happens...” and it does make things a lot easier.
As I write this, we’re just finishing off the last book of Level 8. I say we, not I, because Ben just made me a nice cup of tea, Kat iswriting level 9, and I’m off to the beach.
Building Blocks Library Level 1〜3（既刊）、Level 4〜5 《6月28日(月)発売》