Creating Characters for Children's Books
By Stephanie Baudet
Copyright © 2010, Stephanie Baudet, All Rights Reserved
(First published in Writing Magazine (UK))
When thinking about creating characters for children's stories some words quickly spring to mind. Memorable. Different. Quirky. A little larger than life. The reader needs to quickly engage with them and want to know what happens. The moment where the reader meets the main character is crucial. Their interest must be immediately roused. It's a good idea to begin with dialogue so that we immediately hear the 'voices' of the people in the story.
Child characters may appear normal and average so that readers identify with them but they need to have strong character traits, both positive and negative and these traits should be a little in excess of average. It is these strengths and weaknesses which will determine how they react to the obstacles which beset them in solving their problem or achieving their goal. Readers need to empathise with the book characters but they also aspire to be them too. What does he want? This is the central driving force of the story. The stronger the need, the stronger the story. Show this by their dialogue, and, more importantly, their actions. Let the readers understand the importance of this yet let it be feasible too. A child who wants to be an airline pilot will obviously not achieve it during the story yet he might win a competition to go in a flight simulator.
Physical appearance and age are important. Children need to be able to conjure up an image of the characters, but less is more. Don't spend a paragraph describing the character. It's the old adage show don't tell again. Use their dialogue and actions to portray character. And no mirrors. That means of description is clichéd.
The main character in a story generally needs to be a little older than the readers. A year or two makes a big difference in a child's life and children prefer to read about other slightly older rather than younger.
In order to create fully rounded human beings they need to be three-dimensional, i.e. you should show their emotional, their social and their physical self. Some of these will depend on the plot but even if they do not, they are still important in making your characters human. Your characters must not appear at the start of the story as if from a sort of limbo. They have had several earlier years of life and experience which has helped to make them who they are. Don't make the mistake of adding all this to the story but just remember how it will affect them, for example, if a child fell into a pond and nearly drowned as a toddler, they may well have an disproportionate fear of water.
Keep building and adding layers to your story folk. Real people have layers and layers of thoughts, hopes, fears and fantasies.
By the end of the story a main character should have changed in some way or have learnt something about themselves. Perhaps the final climax brought out a hidden strength which she didn't know she possessed or she realised a fault and vowed to put it right. Whatever form the change takes, there must be one. Characters never reach the end of a book unchanged. This growth of a character helps readers make their own choices in life.
It is a good idea to have a list of questions to ask your characters when you begin to create them and there are many of these lists around ranging from ten or twelve questions to several pages.
How much you flesh out your characters depends largely on the length of the story. Picture books and books for very young readers are illustrated so need very little description at all except if it relates specifically to the plot, i.e. a fox with no tail or boy who never stopped growing.
Here is a list of questions and you can add more of your own.
- What is your name or nickname ?
- How old are you?
- Have you any brothers or sisters and do you get on with them?
- What is your favorite item of clothing?
- What are you good at?
- What are you afraid of?
- What is in your pocket?
- If you had $20 to spend, what would you spend it on?
- What is your biggest wish?
- Do you have any pets?
- What is your favorite food?
- Who is your best friend?
- What is your secret?
- What are your hobbies?
- What is hanging on your bedroom wall?
- What do you do when you're angry? What makes you angry?
- Do you have any habits or gestures which irritate other people?
Apart from these we need to observe and get to know children – those of friends or relatives of course! Observe and listen to them. How do they speak? What sort of things do they know? What really interests them? It's fine to think back to when we were children as well but things have changed a lot and the last thing you want is for your characters to be old-fashioned, which they will be if you rely on memory alone.
In the picture book Silly Goose
by Marni McGee and illustrated by Alison Edgson, Goose is a very naïve bird who believes everything Fox tells her. Young children will soon realise that they know that geese do not having sticking out ears and that those which belong to Fox and Rabbit and Cow would look really silly on Goose. It's only when the disguised Fox is about to eat her that she realises that she must have ears somewhere as she can hear her friends outside. Children will love to feel smarter than this character.
Clover Twig, in Clover Twig and the Incredible Flying Cottage
by Kaye Umansky, is a very smart, clever little girl who is afraid of no-one. This is established right at the beginning Clover kept her hand right where it was. She wasn't about to be ordered around by an old gate, even if it did belong to a witch.
A little later when the witch is considering taking Clover on as a cleaner she asks her to describe herself in five words. Clover says ...hard-working, tidy, honest, mostly sensible, and -- stubborn,
which neatly sums her up for the reader too. But the trouble begins when the cottage -- and Clover -- fly away.
Thomas Trew is a character created by Sophie Masson (Hodder Children's Books) and who features in a number of books (six to date). We soon learn that Thomas is a resourceful and determined character but nevertheless he is vulnerable and capable of deep emotion. It seemed unbearable to him that the girl who had been so much at home in the sea should be in danger of death… Somebody horrible and cruel had poisoned her with a wicked curse… Whoever that somebody is, I'll find them and punish them, he thought fiercely, as the tears kept falling.
- Your character must be believable yet slightly larger than life
- Their goal or problem must be strong both to them and to the readers
- Keep up to date with the children of today
- Your character should have changed or learnt something by the end of the story
by Marni McGee (Little Tiger Press. ISBN: 184506634
Clover Twig and the Incredible Flying Cottage
by Kaye Umansky (Bloomsbury, ISBN: 9780747590637
Stephanie Baudet is the author of nearly 30 books for children including Watchers of the Sky
and for adults A Measure of the Soul