How to create the perfect character for your children's book
Writing characters can be either the most fun or the most tedious aspect of creating your story. Sometimes characters can come to us like a dream—you can hear them talking if you close your eyes and they are just so vivid that you can imagine them being a real person. Other times ... well, let’s just say we know when we’re taking any old, blank canvas along for a joy ride in place of a well thought-out character.
Here at Ethicool, we believe that one of the biggest challenges as an adult writing for children’s picture books is that we sometimes have a skewed idea of how children think and feel. This carries across to our writing and the characters that we create. Yes, sometimes ideas and concepts have to be simplified in order to create young characters, but that doesn’t mean that every child we write about should be extremely naive or lack awareness.
In all the submissions we receive, something that is very easy to assess and point out is the characterisation in the story. Usually we can consider characterisation on a spectrum from being weak to strong.
So what does weak characterisation in our submissions look like?
- Characters who are overly perfect and never make mistakes.
- Characters who are inconsistent. Oftentimes this means that their actions and inner monologue contradict each other.
- Characters who do not have a distinct personality or any defining traits that make them interesting.
- Similar to the above, characters that think, act, and feel the exact same way as all the other characters in the story.
- Characters who are not likeable or relatable in some way or form.
- Characters who do not change or develop throughout the story.
While this list may seem a little bit intimidating, the good news is that writing a strong character for your picture book may not be as difficult as you think. In all honesty, a fantastic protagonist will come with some extra hard work and planning as long as you’re willing to put the effort in.
Here's how you can create the perfect character for your children's book:
How to create a great character
Now that we’ve taken a look at what weaker characterisation can look like, it is helpful to understand what makes a great character so great.
Below are three critical components to incorporate into your writing:
1. A great character will feel real
Making your characters feel like they could exist in real life (even if they live in some alternate dimension) is a really integral step to creating a successful story. Real characters are easier to empathise with and therefore become more likeable and enjoyable to read about. They are consistent. This is the key. Their actions, thoughts, and dialogue all work in harmony to make them convincing and easy to imagine existing in real life.
Most of the submissions that we receive are extremely character-driven, which means that the story is dependent on whether the character makes sense or not. If your character doesn’t feel real, they’re going to have strange behaviours that just don’t quite match the motivations that they set out to achieve. This can really weigh down your entire story!
2. A great character is someone who is memorable and stands out from the rest
What sets a good story apart is having a character that has a lasting impact on you. These are the most well-written characters because they will stay with you for a lifetime.
An easy pitfall to get lost in is making a character extraordinarily perfect because you want them to be the hero. This is not how a character becomes memorable. You will have more success in making your protagonist special by giving them really specific and endearing character traits that are believable and relatable.
Here are two helpful tips to accomplish that:
- Try to give your character a tangible object that’s memorable and can only be associated with them. This gives the reader a visual cue to associate your character with and makes them more iconic. These can be anything from clothes to toys. Take, for example, The Cat in the Hat's famous hat and bowtie.
- Give your character just one super defined personality trait and try to exaggerate this a little bit. This works really well in picture books because children love to see characters that are just a little bit more amplified. For example, if you’re going to have a character whose defining trait is that they’re scared, make them ALWAYS scared of everything. In doing so, you’re strengthening that character’s personality and making them more entertaining to learn about.
3. A great character is shown to the reader, not told
Showing, and not telling, can be dangerous in your writing. It’s often too straightforward, leaves nothing to the imagination, and can really dampen the magic of your writing. When it comes to characters, telling instead of showing can make them seem flat and boring when we really want them to be as exciting as possible.
So how are you able to create strong characterisation through showing instead of telling? Here's a few things can you do:
Use action and behaviour: Instead of telling and describing character (which can be done through illustrations), try focusing on the character’s actions. How do they walk? Do they do something in particular when they’re nervous? Add some movement into your character that’s distinctive to only them and you’ll be creating someone that feels more real and is easily distinguishable. Never forget the old saying ‘actions speak louder than words’. If your character is sad, don’t tell us that they’re sad. There are a billion different ways to illustrate this to us through their actions—whether they’re crying or huddled up in the corner of their room, or curled in their bed with a blanket over them.
- Use dialogue: Everyone has their own distinct styles of speaking and this can be such a strong indicator of who a character is, where they come from, and what sort of people they hang around with. As most picture story book submissions we receive have characters that are children, it’s a really great opportunity to give them a unique way of speaking because, as we know, children can say some very entertaining and fascinating things. For example, maybe your main character is a six year old girl who calls her uncle ‘Moo’ because he is a farmer. The more specific and interesting you can make these dialogue features, the more convincing and realistic your character becomes.
When it comes to good characters, the main point we’re trying to make is you should be able to show us just how and why your characters are so special compared to anyone else’s. If you aren’t able to give an answer to that, it may be time to sink a couple of hours into some planning. Not sure how? Read on to find out.
How to write a basic character profile
A great way to create the perfect character for your children's book is to create a character profile. For those of you reading who might have never heard of a character profile before, it is a simple and formulaic way to reflect and question who your character really is through a template method.
Using a character profile can be extremely beneficial to really nail the basics and foundations of a character before you commit to writing them in your story. Sometimes, it can be really easy to tell when an author has created their plot and narrative first and then tried to cram a character to fit it. What you really should be aiming for is having a character that works harmoniously with your plot and using a character profile can really help you nail those details.
Now, not all character profiles are a great match for the type of character, form, or genre you are writing about. The reason we say this is because a character profile for a picture book protagonist should definitely look different to a character profile for a fantasy novel protagonist. So here are some very basic components of a character profile for picture book writing for you to consider:
Component 1: Name
The saying goes that it's all in a name, and that is absolutely true for children's book characters. This quintessential question you need to ask yourself when writing is:
- What is your protagonist’s name?
Here are some tips for choosing the perfect name:
- As you’re writing for children, it is so integral to have names that are easy to understand and distinguish from one another. We receive a lot of submissions where the authors use names with the same initials for multiple characters. This gets extremely confusing for us as editors, imagine how it would feel for a six year old!
- Consider using sound to your advantage such as alliteration or rhyme (eg. Angry Angela or Mean Eileen) to help make your character more memorable.
Component 2: Appearance
When we think back to our favourite characters from childhood, many of us remember what they look like before we remember what they did. How your character looks is an essential defining feature of who they are, so when brainstorming your character's appearance, ask yourself the following questions:
- What does your protagonist look like?
- What clothes do they wear?
- How old are they?
- Do they have any specific physical appearance traits (eg. a birthmark on their arm, glasses, a missing tooth, etc)?
Appearances can be deceiving, though. Remember the following when thinking about your character's appearance:
- You don’t want to take up too much valuable word count describing your characters unless it’s imperative to the story, but it’s good to have a basic understanding of what you want your character to look like.
- In line with 'show, not tell' remember that detail descriptions of your character can be added into the illustrator notes in your manuscript.
Component 3: Relationships
Relationships are key to any story, so it's important to think about how - and with whom - your character relates. Here are some questions to ask:
- Who does your main character interact with on a day-to-day basis (eg. friends, family, teachers, neighbours)?
- Which other characters will be important in the story and how do they interact with your protagonist?
When it comes to relationships, it's very easy to make a few easy mistakes. Here's how to avoid common pitfalls:
- It’s very easy to fall into the mistake of writing character relationships that are very stereotyped. For example, if you’re writing about a mother and daughter relationship, you may make the mother very gentle and loving towards the daughter. This is fine to incorporate, but don’t be afraid to get specific. Are there specific quirks to this relationship that could make it special and different? For example, perhaps the mother enjoys tucking the daughter's hair behind her ear or giving her a special nickname.
- While stereotypical relationships are of course fine and exist for a reason, today's readers do expect more diversity in how relationships are shown.
Component 4: Personality and character traits
It's possible - and in fact, often expected - that you'd show the full personality of your character throughout your children's book. When creating your character, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- How would you describe your character?
- What are some of their best qualities?
- What are their worst qualities?
- What are some of their flaws that could get them into trouble?
When creating your character though, remember the following:
Like the previous tip, don’t make your characters an archetype or stereotypical! The best characters are the ones that stand out and have unique and subtle behaviours, quirks, or dialogue.
Remember that when you're drafting your manuscript, it isn't always necessary to do a character profile for every single character present within your picture book. This is because sometimes characters will only be brief and mentioned in passing. But for your protagonist or other key characters, a character profile can go a long way in making them their best selves and enhancing your story.
How to write more than one main character
Sometimes, you may have more than one main character in your story (although for picture books, we'd really only recommend one or two). If you're choosing to have two, then we have one main word of advice: don’t make them too similar. This rule applies to every aspect of character building, as per the list below.
- If you do have more than one main character, don’t give them names that are too similar. For the most part, rhyming names are usually welcome, but try to stay away from names that have the same first initial. These characters can easily get muddled and blurry especially when you’re first being introduced to new characters you don’t know. For younger readers, they will be very difficult to distinguish.
- Ensure that your characters have distinctive and unique traits that set them apart. This goes for all your characters, but if you’re writing about a couple of central figures, you really don’t want them to be behaving or talking with the exact same mannerisms. This is for the exact same reasons that you don’t want their names to be too similar.
- Finally, consider your character's function within the story. Are your main characters accomplishing the same thing the exact same way? If so, you probably don’t need more than one main character and you could focus on fleshing out one single protagonist instead.
Here at Ethicool, we find that the most successful submissions are the ones that really focus on one or two main characters. It gives the reader enough time to learn about the protagonists while giving the characters enough space in the story for them to develop.
How to develop your character in relation to the plot
You may know by now that character and plot are innately connected. In picture book form especially, one almost never exists without the other. Action and sequences happen because of the character—their decisions are what dictate and shape the narrative so it’s important to understand your character through and through.
Here at Ethicool, we love to read about characters who can employ accomplishable action to fix their goals. We love to publish these stories as well to teach little ones that they have the ability and the power to achieve big things.
However, the balance of getting this right isn’t easy. Many submissions we receive usually aren’t successful because they fall into one of these two traps:
- The conflict (and you can read more about this in our article about plot) is not integral or important enough to the character. This means that we as readers fail to care either. If your character isn’t invested in solving the problem, it’s very likely that children won’t be engaged enough to want to find the solution either. Your character must have the motivation and the perseverance to drive the narrative forward/
- The character doesn’t need to overcome any obstacles because they have solved the conflict way too easily. Children of course love to read about characters who are stronger, smarter, and braver than the average person, but that doesn’t mean that your character should be perfect. Don’t be afraid to let them fail before they resolve the conflict for good. If anything, if you let your character fail first, you’re teaching an important lesson to never give up. Another thing to note here is that we also receive submissions where the main character’s problem is fixed for them and the conflict is resolved within a page. This often doesn’t exude the message that children are capable of anything they set their minds to.
In order to avoid these pitfalls, we recommend you do the following:
1. Critically consider your character's motivations and desires
To best integrate your character with your plot, you first need to ask yourself what it is that your character wants to achieve. For picture book stories, you should make this goal quite simple and straightforward so you have more room to flesh out other elements of your writing (such as stylistic language choices and the moral or message).
To do so, ask yourself these questions:
- What does your character want?
- Why do they want it?
- What is stopping them from getting what they want?
- What do they need in order to get what they want?
2. Focus on character development
Your character is not a stagnant figure in the story - typically, they need to learn something, grow or change throughout the story. One of the greatest signs of a good character is the way this development is demonstrated—does your character’s growth feel earned? Your character should be learning and growing in a way that makes sense with each turn of the page.
To ensure that your character develops best alongside the plot, ask yourself these questions:
- How has my character changed from the beginning to end of the story?
- What have they learned?
- Is the change in my character clear to the reader?
The stronger you can make your character development and growth the more likely you’re also able to convey a strong moral or message of your story alongside it.
Would you befriend your character?
Character, alongside plot, is one of the most critical part of your children's book, If you think that your characters are the weakest part of your story at the moment, then you should definitely investigate and research some of your own favourite picture book characters. Write up a character profile on them and critically think about what makes them so special to you. As with any type of writing, research is almost always the key to success and there’s no harm in taking some time to really build that perfect protagonist before you get started.
Here at Ethicool, when it comes to picture books, we really believe that if you don’t want to at least become friends with your main character by the end of the story, then the whole journey just may not seem so worthwhile. Picture books are bright, brilliant, and magical, which means that your characters need to possess all these qualities and more in order for your work to stand out among the rest.
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