When you think about characters in children’s books, there will undoubtedly be a few that stand out from your own childhood reading. You probably remember the awesome protagonist from that book your mom or dad used to read you before bed, or the devious villain from a chapter book your elementary school teacher read in class. If you are now a parent or caregiver, you might have a favorite story that you read to your own kids. One with a character that makes you laugh, or maybe one who makes you cry.
There is something special about children’s book characters — the best ones are so like us that both kids and adults can connect to and empathize with them. Regardless if they are animals or aliens, humans or pets, vegetables or automobiles, our favorite children’s book characters often simplify the overly complicated world that adults have created. We connect with them. They are relatable. No matter how old we are. So, how do we write a character that readers will relate too?
1. Get to Know Your Character
When you’re creating your children’s book manuscript, it’s vitally important to get to know your main character. Inside and out. Rather than just starting to write, or focusing solely on how to drop your character into the plot, spend some time developing the character itself. Then allow the plot to work around them. I find that it’s sometimes fun to start with my character’s name. Consider how different names can create different mental images for your reader. Chuck conjures a different visual image than Esmeralda. Does your character’s name make them sound mean? Friendly? Spoiled? Angry? Is your character’s name “cutesy”? Consider picking a name that might best represent the unique personality of your character.
2. Set a Character Age
Next, choose the age for your character. This is a surprisingly important detail for many young readers. Their age will determine what sorts of things they are interested in, what games they like to play, how they spend their time, and who or what they interact with. A character too young may be seen as childish to some, and too old might be unrelatable. Try to find that age-specific sweet spot.
3. Visualize Your Character
After settling on an age, take some time to visualize the appearance of your character. Sure, this might change when art is created, but it can be very useful during the writing process to have a good image of your character in your head. What you picture in your mind may differ from that of future readers, e.g. illustrators, editors, art directors, etc., so it may even be helpful to share your visual description with a few friends, or pre-readers, and ask them their perceptions. Is your character sloppy or well-kept? Do they prefer fancy dress or something like baggy shorts and sneakers? A big, giant of a dog or a tiny, little puppy? These questions might help you develop your character's voice as well! Have some fun with it.
4. Define Key Characteristics
Last, and possibly most importantly, determine the defining facets of your character’s personality. Get to know their strengths and weaknesses. Do they struggle to make friends? Are they inept at finding their way in the forest? Are they looking for help from someone older and wiser? These are all common character traits in children’s books that help to create and develop your plot. What is your character afraid of? Or obsessed with? How does their personality affect how they interact with others? The way your character relates to others helps influence the connection readers will make with the character.
Don’t skimp when it comes to getting to know your characters. Writing well-developed characters makes all the difference in allowing your reader to connect with your story.
We want to hear what you think! Let us know your favorite character, your character writing struggles, or questions in the comments below!