NSW Education LIVE – Cressida Cowell

This page is a transcript of the video NSW Education LIVE with Cressida Cowell.

Duration – 11:39

How to Train your Dragon author and illustrator Cressida Cowell shares her tips on bringing characters to life.


Cressida Cowell

Hello everyone in NSW. Thank you to our NSW Education Department, for inviting me to come on your school's online masterclass program. I'm Cressida Cowell, and I am the author, and illustrator of the How to Train Your Dragon books and The Wizards of Once series. And I'm talking to you here, from the shed at the bottom of my garden in London. Where I wrote– this is my writing shed. And where I wrote all the How to Train Your Dragon books and all the Wizards of Once series and I did all the illustrations here.

I will often say to children, I go into a total story about creative writing, say, writing is like telling a really big lie. The more detail you put into the lie, and the more you base it on a tiny grain of truth, the more it comes alive in your readers head. And that goes for everything about writing. So, this is all about how research into real things makes your stories feel real. Feel real, so the reader or the watcher or the listener, so it goes to for filmmaking as well. So, How to Train Your Dragon, the book has changed, dragons didn't just spring out of nowhere, it wasn't something that, I just thought up immediate. I did base it on something true. And that was when, was because, although I grew up in London, I'm speaking from London now, by the way, in a writing shed at the bottom of my garden in London, that's where I grew up. But my dad was this mad keen birdwatcher. He, his job was in London, but his heart was in the wilderness.

What that meant for us as children, is that every year from when I was a baby, we would be taken, here to this, this actual uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland an island so small, when you stand on the top of it, you can see this island. You can see sea all around you. Yeah, you can see just from that it's a very small island. And there was nothing on this island; there is no houses, there was no mobile phones back in the days. No Tescos, absolutely no way, I've gotten contact in the outside world, if something went wrong. We'd be dropped off by a local boatman, and then picked up again two weeks later. So, this was an incredible experience from my childhood, and when from when I was nine. What this means is that the Isle of Berk is a real place. It is based on a true place. Prior to when I was nine, my dad had a house built on the island, and then we spent the whole summer there. And the house had no electricity so there was no television. And, so I spent my whole time reading and writing and looking for dragons. I was looking for dragons, for a very particular reason. Which was that, on that little island once upon a time, real Vikings would have lived there. On that west coast of Scotland. The Vikings that was the first place the Vikings came to. When they invaded Great Britain and it was the last piece they left. So real Vikings would have lived on that island, once upon a time. And so I used to, and the Vikings believe that dragons really existed. That's what Vikings believed. So, lots of the stories from those islands were descended from Viking times. So, I used to climb in the cliffs looking, imagine what if the Vikings were right? What if dragons really did exist?

And so I'd look for dragons in the caves, on the rocks on the island, and I'd also write stories, about Vikings and dragons and this is me on that little island, writing stories about Vikings and dragons. So, you see, How to Train Your Dragon, sprung out of a real experience. And then, of course, I do lots of research, into real things, to make my imaginary Viking and dragon world feel real. Cause there are lots of incredible facts that you can find out about Vikings that give you ideas like, Vikings really did have extraordinary names like Bjarke the Bear is my made-up name. But there was real, for one of the Vikings, but there were real Vikings called. And there was a real Viking called the Ivar the Boneless. Isn't that incredible? And, I'm gonna tell you a few facts, about Vikings and you can see how they give me ideas for stories.

Try and think whether you think this is true or not. Vikings discovered America way before Christopher Columbus. Do you think that's true, or is that false? That's true, and that gave me the whole idea for one of the stories, yes. Which one? This one, for How to Ride a Dragon's Storm, where Hiccup goes to America. This is a really, this is one, you'll never get. Vikings, trained cats. So when they were sword fighting an opponent, they could throw the cat at their opponent's head cause it's very, very difficult to sword fight somebody, if a cat is attacking your head. Do you think that's true, or is that false? That's true, I know, isn't that extraordinary? And that gave me a whole idea for something I put into How to Fight a Dragon's Fury.

And I'm drawing you my three heroes, and they actually have three different magical powers. This is Xar, this is the warrior boy. He's very, he's very, very naughty. Xar, I'd say when I'm drawing him, I have to think, naughty thoughts, of what Xar might be thinking which is naughty next to do. And he, that this is him, thinking of a clever, naughty idea. And he's got these.... they've all got these Bronze Age tattoos and circles and things like that. And yeah, there he is, thinking of something, cleverly naughty to do. Now Xar, his magical power is he's gotten magical hands. He's very creative, magical fingers, okay. His problem is that he's the kind of kid, who acts first and thinks later. Yeah, we know this kid. This is like he means very well as I say, I try and get a real feeling of affection for him into the drawing. His hair is very confident. Cause Xar is very confident. I try and get a real feeling of affection into the drawing, but he has this witch stain, you see, this is his clever fingers. That's his clever fingers. Magic fingers that think of clever ideas and very creative, yeah? There are his clever fingers but he's got this witch stain on his hand, which is leading him to be creative, in a bad way. So that's Xar's magic.

This is Wish. Now Wish is very different. She has a magic eye. It's hidden behind that eye patch. And the magic eye. She's also very creative Wish. They all have some of the magic powers that the others have as well. But her real, ability is to magic ability, is to see into other people's minds. But she has a magical power actually isn't it? Looking in somebody else's mind. But really she can see, with her magic eyes, it gives her empathy. That's a word empathy, which means being able to see things from each other from other people's point of view. It's got this very magic hair, which goes a little bit wild. (pencil scribbles) Like that, so, that's her magic, she's got the magic eye of empathy. And Bodkin is the last one. He is Wish's bodyguard. And he's permanently worried (laughs) about wish. That's him worrying because being her bodyguard, the great thing (mumbles).

Wish is a wonderful character, and she's very, very kind. But she does get into trouble, an awful lot. Wish and so, when Bodkin's her bodyguard, he has to try and look after her, and so that's what why he's looking so worried, you see, that's why I made him so worried. This is Wish's magical spoon. She's got a magical spoon, which is an ordinary iron dinner spoon, but it just happens to be alive this spoon. So, she has magic which works on iron which is very, very dangerous in this world. Because the witches are very, very keen on getting hold, of magic that works on iron.

(pencil scribbles)

And this is Bodkin. You can see, can you see that picture? Yes, Bodkin is very worried about Wish, very worried, about looking after Wish, cause he has a problem Bodkin, which is a real problem in a bodyguard, in that he tends to faint in situations of danger, which is you can imagine, makes you not a very good bodyguard. If you faint in times of danger. That's his helmet. But, what he has, his magical power, is magical thought magical, thinking. He's very good at thinking his way out of trouble. So, they all have some of, the others' powers. So he can be creative and empathetic as well. But his real magical power is magical thinking, thinking of clever ideas that might get them out of trouble in the situations that they get into.

And you can see how I've created their characters in the way that I've drawn them. Can you see that Wish is kind, I think kind thoughts when I'm drawing Wish, and I think rather anxious thoughts, when I'm thinking, when I'm drawing Bodkin, and when I'm drawing Xar, I'm thinking naughty thoughts, of him being very confident and sure of himself. And that sort of tells the story, just in the way I'm drawing the characters.

End of transcript.

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