When developing a character in children’s fiction, age matters in a way that it does not in the adult market. There are three main age brackets in children’s literature: picture books for the 4- to 8-year-olds, middle grade books for children 8 to 12, and young-adult novels for those 12 and older. Although the process of creating a character is the same for each, it is a good idea to keep your intended reader’s age in mind when writing.
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Things you need
Read as many children’s books as you can. The authors of these books can act as your teachers, familiarising you with the children’s market and showing you how to build strong characters. Most libraries have children and young-adult sections.
Start with your main character. He or she must be a child. Kids often prefer to follow a protagonist a couple of years older than themselves, so it is fine if your character is not the exact same age as your intended reader.
Get to know your character and make him original. According to young-adult author Ellen Wittlinger, “The most important thing about building a character is to start on the inside… and layer on all the different qualities that make the person unique.” Try writing out a list of questions and answering them for your character. The list can include basic questions, like age and music tastes, or more complex ones, such as your character’s deepest fear. It is crucial to make the character real in your head, so that he will be convincing to a reader.
Make sure that a child can easily identify with your character. Jill Santopolo, a children’s book editor and author, says, “The two most important things to have in a picture book character are uniqueness and relatability… Finding the balance between those two is the trick to creating a really strong character with potential longevity." Author Crystal Allen, who recently sold her first middle-grade book, has a suggestion for creating a relatable character. “Make sure the character has a flaw. Nobody's perfect.” In fact, the more nuances you can add to your character, the more three-dimensional he will become.
Your character needs a goal to strive for or a problem to fix. Conflict gives readers a reason to root for your protagonist and it drives the plot forward. Ensure that your character solves his own problems. If a friend or adult saves the day, your character misses an opportunity to grow and may not have changed sufficiently from when we first met him.
Keep your character’s actions and thoughts consistent with his personality and mindset. According to writer Nancy Lamb, “A strong character doesn’t behave the way you want him to. A strong character behaves the way he should.”
Apply the same steps when creating supporting characters.
Join a professional organisation, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. From there, you can attend conferences and workshops and connect with other writers to form a critique group. The first person who meets your character should never be a prospective agent or editor.
Tips and warnings
- Check out author Verla Kay’s site, which offers detailed suggestions about getting started in the world of children’s writing. The site also has transcripts of past online chats featuring notable figures in the kidlit world.
- Consult the latest edition of the "Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market." See if your local library has a copy, before purchasing.
- Read one of the many books about the children’s writing process, such as “The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children.”
- For help with step 3, read sample character checklists, such as the one found on scribd.com (search for “writer’s character checklist”).
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