It’s often taught in writing classes and books that the protagonist of a story can have flaws, but they must be impactful, strong, and inspirational. Yet, despite its main character being, well, a wimp, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series has outsold nearly every other children’s book in the world. Jeff Kinney, the author of the bestselling series, maintains that the Wimpy Kid books resonate with people across the world because the protagonist Greg Heffley’s life is simple and his problems are relatable. HT Café caught up with Kinney during a global tour to promote the latest book in the series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down, to talk about his writing process, his inspirations, and the new book.
Tell us about your new book, Double Down.
Something I’ve tried to get better at as I write the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books is writing a narrative. And I realised that I’ve lost track of what the books’ strength is, which is that Greg’s writing in a journal. If you’re writing in a journal format, you can get a peek inside the character’s mentality. So, I spent more time in this book inside of Greg’s head, than I had in other books.
You had said earlier that you’d do 10 Wimpy Kid books, but now you’ve said that you’re planning to do 20. What changed your mind?
I don’t know if I really ever had a definitive end date. I wanted to have the quality of the books to be high enough; I didn’t want to start losing my touch. But a few things changed my mind. One is that I see there’s still an appetite for the books. Another is, I’ve realised that these are comics; and there’s really not an expiration date on cartoon characters. I think, realistically, I might be in the middle of my career as a cartoonist. I don’t have any compulsion to stop right now.
Tell us about your writing process and your influences.
I think every cartoonist who came after Charles Schulz is somehow borrowing from him. The first literature that I loved was comics – Carl Barks’ Donald duck and Uncle Scrooge comics. And, I was probably influenced by Judy Blume, who wrote realistic fiction about kids. I think if you add all these together, you get Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I try to write about situations that most kids can really relate to.
People’s lives are changing, especially with how technology has affected us. How do you make the books feel timeless?
I try to focus on things that aren’t technology based. I try to write the books as if they have happened 20 years ago or could happen 20 years from now. I think 20 years from now, parents and kids will still be battling over how much time you spend in front of a screen. We were dealing with it 20 years ago with video games and TV. So, things like these will continue to be with us for a while, and I try to acknowledge that and bring that forward in the broadest and most generic sense.
Greg, as main character, doesn’t really fit the traditional role of a protagonist. Why is he that way and how did you think about that?
I remember reading a book on writing while I was working on Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and one of the first tips was, ‘Don’t make your main character a wimp’. Of course, Greg is ineffective in a way. In fact in Brazil, the books are called, Diario de um Banana, which they almost made up to mean “diary of an ineffective person” (laughs). I think he’s ineffective, he’s almost invisible. If you think about the first book, the story that happens with Greg, most of the school might not even have noticed that. He sort of represents the invisible people in a way; the people who are living their lives, who have their own struggles.
Your books have a broad appeal. How do you avoid writing in a way that talks down to children but appeals to adults at the same time?
I first wrote these books for adults. I worked for eight years thinking that I was writing a book that grownups would like, where they were looking back at their childhood. It never occurred to me to try to write stories where I was imparting some sort of moral lesson. With my books now, I still imagine that I’m writing for adults. So, I try to have a sort of imaginary adult reader in mind. There’s a line in the sand that I don’t cross, where I think a joke might be good enough for a kid, but that an adult might not like it, and that’s when I pull back and I say, “If I start making that mistake, I’m going to make it over and over again.” So I try to step back from that line. I’m not trying to appeal to kids as much as I am to adults.