I loved the Ramona books when I was a girl, but if it's possible, I love them even more as an adult. Re-reading these books has taught me a lot about writing compelling characters. Here are a few things I've learned from Ramona Quimby:
- Make them real: Ramona feels like a real pesky kid sister; she's as familiar as our own siblings or neighbors.
- Make them realer than real: Ramona is a bigger-than-life character, the type that does and says things beyond the regular, everyday world. Somehow, this over-the-top aspect of her character is what makes her seem most like an actual kid: the more unique and outrageous she acts, the more she reminds us of real life.
- Make them sympathetic: It would have been easy for Beverly Cleary to create a character whose flaws made her unattractive, like good ol' Bugs Meany in the Encyclopedia Brown books (has there ever been a better mid-grade villian's name, by the way?). But those flaws are precisely why we love Ramona -- we feel for her in the midst of her problems because we see our own selves in her experiences.
- Make them logical: Part of Ramona's appeal is the way she makes sense of the world: the time she walks to school at 25 after the hour (because she was supposed to leave her house at the quarter hour), the time she is convinced her teacher is going to give her a gift because she tells her to sit for the present. Even when she's wrong we can relate to her logic because we're seeing her world through her young eyes.
- Show them respect: The thing that has really struck me as an adult re-visiting the Ramona books is the compassion Beverly Cleary has for her character. Though she doesn't shy away from awkward moments, there is a tenderness in the way Cleary deals with Ramona when she throws up in class, when she kicks her bedroom walls in anger, when she names her doll the most beautiful name she can think of -- Chevrolet.
Thank you, Beverly Cleary, for creating such a memorable, remarkable character. My writing -- and living -- are better for it.