craft review by Beth Mitchell
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown is a charming tale of a robot who is washed ashore on an island inhabited only by animals. ROZZUM unit 7134, or Roz, is not designed for the wilderness, but she is programmed with survival instincts and the ability to learn. At first, the other animals call her a monster, but after she adopts an orphaned gosling, she gradually becomes part of the animal community and makes the wilderness her home.
Our MG Lunch Break (in-person middle grade discussion) group had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion about this book, and several of our members reported that their 2nd-4th grade children loved it. As writers, we particularly enjoyed discussing Brown’s blog post about his writing process. In it, he shares the planning that went into his first draft, from the first glimmer of a premise to story maps to his own novel-specific writing rules. Whatever your own pre-writing process, you can learn from the ways that Brown’s preparation paid off in The Wild Robot.
A Premise with Promise
Many years before Brown started working on the novel, a question stuck in his mind: “What would an intelligent robot do in the wilderness?”
That question sparked other questions: What kind of robot? What kind of wilderness? How might such a robot end up in the wilderness? What would be challenging for her? What would be easy for her? How might the animals react to her? What could she learn from the different animals? And what could they learn from her? What would she experience in different seasons? What might happen if she lost a foot? How would she react if someone came to retrieve her?
That’s true measure of a worthy premise. You can’t stop thinking about it. It makes you want to ask a zillion follow-up questions. It holds the promise of a story.
In the case of The Wild Robot, the title alone makes my reader’s brain start to hum with possibilities: Bambi meets WALL-E, Charlotte’s Web meets The Iron Giant, Hatchet meets I, Robot. The juxtaposition of a man-made robot with unadulterated nature is surprising and intriguing. It implies the “what if” statement that hooks me.
Action: Make sure that your premise is one that grabs your imagination and won’t let go.
Change, Change, Change—Even for a Robot
After Brown decided on his robot protagonist and his island wilderness setting, he started mapping his story. Through this process, he considered what could happen to Roz and also how she could change as a result.
Brown sets Roz up for a change arc by giving her artificial intelligence. As her computer brain boots up, she says: “Once fully activated, I will be able to move and communicate and learn… I will become a better robot” (Ch. 3).
At first, Roz’s changes are external as she aims to survive: she learns to use camouflage; she learns to speak the animals’ language. Then she begins to act like a mother to Brightbill, the gosling, and she starts to change internally as well. She becomes ever more feeling, more alive, more wild.
When Roz is activated, the narrator tells us, “As you might know, robots don’t really feel emotions. Not the way animals do” (Ch. 4). Roz’s feelings are always described as “something like” an emotion—“something like annoyance” at the pinecones (Ch. 8), “something like fear” in her first encounter with the bear cubs (Ch. 14), and “something like happiness” when Brightbill makes friends with Chitchat (Ch. 38). Near the end of the story, though, Brightbill asks Roz, “Are you happy, Ma?” and she answers simply, “I am” (Ch. 67).
Roz herself sums up her internal transformation at her “birthday” celebration:
“One year ago, I awoke on the shore of this island. I was just a machine. I functioned. But you—my friends and my family—you have taught me how to live. And so I thank you….You have also taught me to be wild… So let us all celebrate life and wildness, together!” (Ch. 66).
The extent of her change is apparent when the RECOs arrive. Their flat robotic voices and rigid programming provide a stark contrast with Roz’s selfless, loving actions.
Creating a robot protagonist who undergoes an internal change is no easy feat. But it’s part of how Brown makes me, as a reader, care for Roz.
Action: Map the arc of your protagonist’s emotional evolution. Make sure every external circumstance drives inner change.
Rules to Write By
Before he started his first draft, Brown made writing rules for himself:
- You’re not a poet, just tell the story plainly
- Keep Roz mysterious by writing in the 3rd person
- Make the chapters as short as possible
- Write with symmetry and repetition, to mirror robots and nature
- Give the narrator a conversational voice, especially during slow scenes
- Understand the motivation behind each of Roz’s actions
Many of these rules reflect choices of style (plain language), pacing (short chapters), and POV (3rd person narrator with a conversational voice) that we, as writers, are accustomed to making.
One rule, though, strikes me as unusual and specific to this novel: write with symmetry and repetition, to mirror robots and nature. That rule flows directly from Brown’s insight that “animal instincts are kind of like computer programs” (A Note About the Story).
Consider the way the narrator describes Roz’s emergence from her crate:
“Then she lifted her hands and pulled apart the crate. Like a hatchling breaking from a shell, Roz climbed out into the world” (Ch. 4).
And the way the narrator recounts the birth of the gosling Brightbill:
“A tiny bill poked through the eggshell, peeped once, and then continued crunching away. The hole grew bigger and bigger, and then, like a robot breaking from a crate, the hatchling pulled himself out into the world” (Ch. 27).
The symmetry and repetition subtly reinforces Brown’s view about the commonalities between robots and wild animals.
Action: Make some writing rules specific to your own work-in-progress. Look especially for rules that reflect your content.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or something in between, you can take something away from Brown’s example. Try refining your premise, mapping your character arcs, or developing a style that reflects your theme. This early preparation will benefit your story in the end.
The sequel to The Wild Robot, The Wild Robot Escapes, is out October 2017 from Little Brown.