According to Elaine Marie Alphin (Creating Characters Kids Will Love p. 2)
“Kids read because a magical closeness springs up between them and the characters in books and stories—the same magical closeness I felt as a child. They read because a writer has brought a character to life on the page for them.”
Every great children’s story pivots around a character who has a problem, a desire, or a need. Through the events and conflicts of the story this character, by personal investment and volition, solves that problem, gains that desire (or loses it) or meets that need. In doing so, that character changes grows or learns something.
So, how DO we create memorable characters?
For me, every story begins with the main character. I’ll be thinking “what ifs” and a character will parachute into my head. This usually gets me pretty excited! I get a rough idea of what’s going to happen to this character and how they are going to react.
Next, I get to know that character really well. Some writers do this on paper or screen. I do it mentally for picture books. I can actually “see” the character. That picture is sometimes sketchy. I learn more and more about that character as I write the story.
I try to keep the following in mind with my characters.
1. Is this person acting and reacting in realistic ways?
Is this really how a kid this age would think? Talk? Act? React to this situation? If not, ask kids that age how they would act or react. Or watch popular kid’s shows on TV. Or observe kids at a park, library, mall. (Careful! No stalking!)
2. Does this character have flaws?
If so, GOOD! Nobody is perfect. Do these flaws affect how they will react further down the story line? Readers can’t relate to a character who never gets in trouble, never has a mean thought, never acts sneaky, never laughs at someone else’s mistakes. If a character or their life is all good, there’s no story for me to write. My character must have room to grow in the story. Also, does my bad guy have at least one redeeming trait? One tiny grain of goodness in their soul?
3. Have I created enough CONFLICT in this kid’s life or situation?
Here is my personal nemesis. I hate conflict! But NO CONFLICT means NO STORY. Remember the elements of story? Conflicts, problems, issues, sticky situations are the blood and bone of story. No problems to face, to overcome??? YAWN!
4. Is this character someone my readers will love, or maybe hate? Can they feel for them?
If readers don’t identify with or connect with a character either positively or negatively they won’t keep reading the story.
5. Is this character bigger-than-life? Sometimes my characters start with someone I know personally, or someone I see out in public. Are they cute? Make them cuter. Funny? Make them funnier. Sneaky? Make them sneakier. EXAGGERATION, ABSURDITY, PREPOSTEROUSNESS (Yes, that is a real word.) make readers laugh and cry, tremble and shriek with your characters. And it makes them identify with your characters because they know that they themselves are not perfect either.
6. Is this character well-rounded in the story, or one dimensional? Do I SHOW (not tell) how they think? How they act? How they feel? How they speak? Do they always say the same thing? Act exactly the same way? A character who doesn’t fluctuate or change isn’t acting human, and adds nothing to the story.
7. Are each of my characters distinctive? Does the way each of them speaks and acts instantly show my reader which character is in the scene? Can I write dialogue without tags so that readers can identify who is saying each line?
8. Does my main character have one primary trait that the story focuses on? Is their story about their courage? Their fear? Their loneliness? Their optimism? Deciding this gives me a good clue as to the theme of my story. Isolating the way my main character changes identifies the theme of the story.
9. Have I built motivation into this character? Is their need, desire or problem big enough to motivate them to do the things they must do to make the story great? If not, I need to change their personality or situation enough to drive them to go after their goal.
A great story filled with action is fun to read. But if we want readers to ask for more, to keep reading the things we write, we must tell that story through amazing and unforgettable characters.
Now plop down in that desk chair and create someone who is unforgettable!
NEED MORE HELP?
Joyce Hostetter will be presenting on Creating Memorable Characters at our Master Class on September 19. You can find more information here. We hope to see you there!