How to create compelling characters in picture books

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This post is by Cathie Tasker, fiction editor and expert in children’s and picture books.

When you’re creating your characters in your picture books, what do you need to consider?

A lot of things about creating a character are obvious — they have names, they are a certain age, they speak in a particular way, they have this or that kind of personality, and so on. But if you want to create a character for a children’s picture book, it takes a little more consideration. Readers need to care about the protagonist, so the protagonist will probably be likeable. “It’s hard to feel compassion for a bully” but a character might have “an endearing flaw”.

Award-winning children’s author Libby Gleeson says it is always worth asking whether the “the characters [are] interesting and original? Do we believe in them?”. Interesting characters are active, not passive, and should be able to change the outcome of the story.

The character must drive the action
To be interesting to children, the character must drive the action of the story within their abilities in the context of the story. Consider how the character “is going to get what she wants [and what] she must overcome … a bully … her own shyness … having to convince her parents of something”.

So the character will feel strongly about something and work towards achieving it. This is “empowering” the character, and the way the character will influence the outcome of the story will have a crucial impact on your decisions right at the beginning of the writing process.

When a story is criticised for not being “child-centred”, this often means that it is the adults who are active, and the child character simply responds to their actions and decisions. The character should take “an active role in the solving the problem which drives the story. Children don’t want adults fixing all their problems. They want to do things themselves, they want to grow up and to be independent.

Empowering the child
Famous picture book author, Pamela Allen captures it perfectly: “I look to empower the child … I want my books to have laughter, love and affection, the things that make you strong in your spirit”.

When creating characters consider these issues:

  • What drives your character?
  • What is their unique essence?
  • What is their passion?
  • How is their character going to develop over the story arc? What will they learn? Achieve?
  • How is your character going to drive the action?
  • Will your character able to change the outcome of the story?

It is not enough to invent a cute character who will look pretty in the illustrations. There has to be an emotional core to the story — the character needs to act, and to grow.


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