If you write character-driven fiction like me, you know that sometimes, a brand new character will appear in your mind, suddenly “born” into your imagination out of nowhere. And the next thing you know? They’re demanding their own story.
Eureka! You have been entrusted with a make-believe life! Your task is now to fashion it into an endearing, larger-than-make-believe character that will spring off the page for your readers. But in the case of picture books, how does one create that kind of protagonist in the space of several spreads?
Remember the good fairies in Sleeping Beauty, who bless the infant princess with special qualities just after her birth? You, too, have things to bestow upon your new character if they are to become an appealing, strong, and memorable protagonist worthy of a story. So wave your wand and repeat after me,
“To my brand new picture book character, I give the gift of…”
- Plenty of personality. Will your new character be wickedly funny or devilishly mischievous or inspiringly brave, or all three? Whatever the case, your main character should NOT “fit in.” Your MC (main character) must stand out. They must be quirky. Even downright weird. If you suspect that your MC needs a personality-injection, try choosing one of the following and exaggerate it: the character’s voice (i.e. all the ways they express themselves), their humor, their spunk, their personal preferences, their idiosyncrasies, their beliefs, their flaws, their fears, their secret talents.
- A kid-like dimension: Kids need to be able to identify with your MC. Often in picture books, this comes down to physical smallness and/or “cuteness.” But beyond the physical aspect, the MC can simply have a child-relatable concern. Maybe it’s wanting to be bigger, a fear of the dark, or loneliness. Maybe it’s the feeling of being left out or left behind. Maybe it’s simply boredom–something kids know well! In my book Clovis Keeps His Cool, my MC seems anything but childlike. He’s a huge, tough, former football-playing bull! But even as someone big and strong, Clovis struggles with controlling his own temper, not to mention facing up to bullies/enemies… struggles many children can relate to.
- A true-to-life trait. By “true-to-life” traits, I mean qualities that can just as easily be flaws. My character Piglette, for example, is a perfectionist. Her perfectionism is not good or bad. It is both good and bad. It is what drives her toward new pursuits, but it is also what impedes her happiness (especially in book 2).
- A relationship. It isn’t easy to make a lone character endearing or relatable (unless his/her main problem is loneliness, in which case the goal will be to bridge that loneliness and find connection). We are social beings, and if there is a real connection between the MC of a story and at least one other character, we have the relational dimension we crave. If your story is lacking “heart,” consider examining and developing your MC’s relationship to another/other character(s).
- A want or a need. Identify what your character wants early on in the story. But also let us know why they want it and how much they want it. This is not the time to speak in generalities. Be as specific as possible. Then, set your character off on pursuing the thing that they want.
- Frustration. Now that your character is aiming for their goal, impede them. Get in their way. Just like in real life, frustration is key to the development of character (not to mention of your story). Frustrate your protagonist’s want or need, and allow them to react to that frustration in a way that is consistent with the specific personality traits you’ve given them. (Don’t just say, “they were frustrated” but show the frustration through remarks, grumbles, complaints, gestures, tantrums…) Being too easy on your character, or sparing them from conflict, stunts their growth and makes for a boring story. So allow your character to confront obstacles and therefore grow, change, and evolve. There are exceptions, but in a traditional narrative arc, your character should not be the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning of it. They should have had a revelation, be transformed in some way, now have a new perspective on life.
- Internal monologue. I don’t mean you should add long monologues. But sprinkle in a few of your MC’s private thoughts, a few asides to themselves, so the reader can get to know them, and understand how they feel about things. Otherwise, you only give a surface-view of events and their superficial effect on your character. So let your reader see beneath the surface a bit, particularly if your story is written in 3rd person, which fiction picture books often are.
This is no recipe written in stone, but I do believe these tips can help you form a protagonist that is worthy of a story. If an editor eventually “adopts” your character as their own, it will be time to find the right illustrator to bring your MC to life. Only an illustrator can bestow the final gift upon your character: the right “skin” for them to live in! And for me, watching this particular step in the publication process has been the most magical part of the journey yet.