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Charles Baxter's Captain Happen in Middle Grade Fiction

Meet Captain Happen—troublemaker, narrative enabler, change agent. The novelist, essayist, and poet, Charles Baxter talks about Captain Happen as one of several ways to increase urgency and momentum in fiction. Male or female, this kind of character shakes things up. They act impulsively and say out loud what everyone else is thinking. In short, they make things happen.

Think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, when she shoots an arrow straight through the group of bored Gamemakers more interested in lunch than her. When the arrow lands in an apple stuffed in the mouth of their roasted pig, she snares the Gamemakers’ attention and ours. We can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.

Middle grade and YA fiction is full of Captain Happens. They’ve starred in some of the most popular children’s books of all time. Think about Peter Pan, Holden Caulfield, and Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Kids and teens (who are still learning how to manage their own inner Captain Happens) love this kind of character. And who wouldn’t when faced with the daily nagging to finish their homework, clean up their room, and put away their phones. It’s so much more fun to read about kids who don’t follow the rules and couldn’t care less.

It seems that the more outrageous the character, the more popular the book. Take the phenomenal success of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants. Few people would have predicted this series to sell over 70 millions copies. Yet kids love the crazy fourth grade duo, George and Harold, who break every rule in the book, including hypnotizing their school principal, stripping him down to his underpants, and sending him out to fight crime.

But if a zany troublemaker is not your favorite kind of protagonist, rest assured that Captain Happen can also be good and kind. The mouse in Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Despereaux is a perfect example. Dreamy and romantic, Despereaux is more interested in chivalry than making trouble. Yet this odd little mouse still manages to break all the rules of human-mouse interaction and does things no mouse is supposed to. He listens to music, reads books, speaks to humans, and worst of all, falls in love with a princess. He is the ultimate nonconformist, and his actions whip everyone around him into a frenzy.

Captain Happens also work well as secondary characters. Think of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when he transforms Nick Bottom’s head into a donkey, and Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s partner-in-crime. While Hermione worries about getting in trouble, Ron rolls his eyes and urges Harry on during their rule-breaking adventures.

If you’re having trouble stirring up action in your own novel, consider adding a Captain Happen. When one of my main characters was just too good, I gave her a nine-year-old brother—a fat, angry little boy who lied easily, blackmailed with relish, and pushed his big sister into loads of trouble.

So write your Captain Happen. Encourage him or her to say the most outrageous thing you can imagine. Then step back and see what happens.

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