I blogged a few weeks ago about my critique with Bree Ogden of a PB that I had been working on F-O-R-E-V-E-R. To recap, the story's main character had never found the right voice. The plot and idea were solid, but the little girl fell flat with every revision. In fact, I absolutely dreaded my critique. I had sent the story in weeks before, and by the time of the conference, I had decided to nix the whole project and chalk it up to experience.
But Bree mentioned one little thing in the critique that made it all sink in. "She is angry about not being able to do what she wants to do. We need to see more of that." And once I clamped on to the idea of anger and indignation, I had a line for her, and from that line came the rest of her character. I was shocked. It seemed so simple...identifying one key emotion helped me build the rest of the story. I felt enlightened and humbled (aka, loser!) all at once.
I read the revised story (major revision #7 or #8 now, I think) to my critique group yesterday, and they loved it. I felt like I had rescued this little girl from the garbage bin, literally. There are still a rough spots, sure, but I think it's on its way to being submission-worthy.
So that's my lesson for the week...identify the key emotion in your character, and use that as a jumping point. I tend to gravitate toward the "quiet" characters, but maybe if I'm not so scared to embrace the more volatile emotions that children feel so intensely, I'll build more rounded and developed characters.