Today I'm taking part in the "The Great Blogging Experiment" started by YA author, Elana Johnson. She suggested we all write on the topic above and just see how many different kinds of posts we get. Over 150 people signed up to participate! So check out Elana's blog here and check out the vast list of participants (including Elana herself).
On to the topic! How to write compelling characters. This is a very interesting subject to me in terms of picture books. Most of the advice I've read on this is geared toward YA or middle grade authors. All of the advice-givers say that it can apply to picture books as well, but I think there are some different things at play for the picture book audience.
First, your character has to be illustratable! There is a very fine balance in picture books between revealing your character's attributes in the writing, and letting the illustrator be a creative force as well. I find that I always over-describe in my first few drafts of a story. Then I have to start deleting. I these initial description overkills are necessary for me to get the character solidly in my head, but they do eventually have to be taken out for the sake of the audience and the illustrator.
Second, characters don't have to be human, but the audience still has to relate to them. I realize there are some YA and MG exceptions to the human rule, but it is obviously much more common in picture books to find non-human characters. Personally, I haven't written any "talking animal" stories yet. I read great ones everyday and my children love them, but I have trouble writing them. I am a very strong believer that a picture book's main character has to be totally relatable to a child and I'm just not able to write relatable animals (or leaves, creatures, fruit, whatever) yet. I hope to experiment with it soon, but until I feel I can get it right, I'll leave it to the experts.
Finally, I have been asking myself all week what makes a character compelling to a three year old. Looking at my own three year old, he seems to go for characters that exude the same kinds of helplessness that he has in his life. The brilliance of a good PB writer shines when they are capturing the vulnerabilities of a child while not making the child-reader feel threatened or adrift in a big scary world. That is such a fine line for the picture book to walk. Using the above mentioned non-human characters is one way to do this (think Clifford and Curious George), but what are some other ways? That is the question I am wrestling with right now in my writing. I'd love to hear your ideas (if any of you fellow bloggers touched on this in your post today, leave the link!).