Friday, September 24, 2010

How to Write Compelling Characters

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!).

23 comments:

  1. I think it must take extra special skill to capture (and retain) the attention of little ones :-)

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  2. I've been making my way through the list of participants and yours is the first that tackles writing compelling characters for picture books. It was really interesting reading this.

    I agree with Rachel -- I think it must take extra skill.

    I'd be interested in hearing more about your first point. How much creative control do you have over what your characters look like?

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  3. How neat! I love how you talked about picture books, I'm with Quinn on this one, I'm making my through the pile and you're the first. I love your take on compelling characters. I write YA novels and adult novels and just thinking about a character development for a childrens book sounds daunting!

    Thanks for shedding light on this! I look forward to more of you! For some reason your followers button isn't showing on my internet so I'll have to come back for a visit to officially follow.

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  4. This is exactly why I can't write picture books. I so see all your points -- illustrateable, human, and then non-threatening. Um, good luck?? LOL!

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  5. Rachel - So true. It is an art I hope to learn and grow!

    Quinn & Jen - I'm glad I touched on something not as many people were mentioning. I'm only a few through on the list myself, so I'm anxious to see what others wrote!

    Elana - I'm thrilled you stopped by! You marvelous fearless, you!

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  6. I really enjoyed this post. I tried my hand at writing PB's back in 1998 and to my surprise it wasn't as easy as I thought it was going to be.
    Don't give up (I'm sure you won't). I love the way you bring up having to make the characters illustratable, that was great!

    I've been enjoying the way these posts are making me think today. Your post especially is going to be on the top of my mind for a while I think. I'm even going to bring it up in my next writing group session.

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  7. Thanks, Patricia! I'm glad my post is inspiring conversation!! : )

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  8. I think your point about making non human characters relatable to the readers. For picture books, especially for young children I pretty much think the world is your oyster because for their imagination has no boundaries. My young son loves 'reading' and will spend ages on one picture because he has so many questions.

    Great post, interesting to hear about PBs vs novels.

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  9. As a preschool teacher and mother of two, I own probably 500 picture books and have read each one many, many times. I can only imagine the work that goes into explaining a character in so few words and captivating a child (or many, or generations of them) that way. And more PBs with real people for characters would be awesome! Good post and good luck!
    erica

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  10. Cool post! I'm not sure what would be compelling to a three year old, but I know it's so important to read to your child, starting from a young age, so go you! :)

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  11. WOW. You write for picture books? This is crazily awesome. This was so interesting to read. Thank you! Seriously.

    You must be talented to entertain three year olds. Yikes.

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  12. It was great to get a PB spin on this - including the fact that your character will (of course) be illustrated, so readers will know what they look like!

    I'm a long time picture book lover, and started buying picture books well before I had children. Some, I have to admit, I bought just for me.

    Good luck with your quest to strike a balance!

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  13. Good point about the character not being human but still being relatable. I've been struggling with that in my current WIP

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  14. Great post Megan! Part of the challenge with creating compelling characters in PBs too is the length. How to make them compelling in 500 words or less? This is why the illustrations are so imperative - they tell more than half the story.

    For me, I think great PB characters show kids (human or not) taking control of their world in some way, learning something by experience (rather than being taught by an adult), and having intense emotional moments.

    BUT - while they must be universally relatable in some way, they also need to be unique.

    THAT's why it is so darn hard to write these things.

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  15. Just read "Oh, the places you'll go!" tonight. It strikes me how this is the one book where my son will point at the little boy and say "There I am!" or "Where am I in this picture?", and yet, this is a little boy alone in a big, big, world. Maybe it works in this instance because he starts the book as a "winner", before he faces his scary trials all alone, coming out on top again. Only makes me wish Ted Geisel illustrated some girls as main characters so my daughter could have a book she felt was written all about her.

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  16. Great comments everyone! Thank you all for visiting my blog and taking the time to leave a comment. This topic has apparently tapped into something, so I'll just have to put it on my list of "blog-topics" to visit again!

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  17. I don't write picture books, but I do have some favorites from my childhood. Two come to mind, 'The Little Engine that Could,' and 'Horton Hears a Who.' Neither have people as characters but both have voices that are exceptional. "A person's a person no matter how small."
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

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  18. I like the "don't have to be human" aspect.
    Hadn't thought of that. And I LOVE children's lit. Good stuff. Thanks Megan.

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  19. What a great post. I've only just started to think about writing a picture book so this is really helpful. Thanks!

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  20. Yes, PB's are a whole other breed of creative. I have a few that I have had to put on the back burner. Telling a complete story with compelling characters in about 30 pages is extremely challenging. I look forward to reading about your journey!

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  21. Great post Megan. Love the picture book spin you put on your topic :)

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  22. As a SF/fantasy writer, I agree that even non-human characters need to have something that enables readers to relate to he/she/it.

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  23. I think one thing that makes a character compelling to a little kid is when that character does things that the kid can only dream about doing ... or had never ever considered themselves. A character that a kid relates to who then does something amazing becomes a hero to the kid and allows their imagination to soar.

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