I’ve never consciously thought about the process of developing my characters, so this made me actually sit down and think about it. How do I create character? That is the question. I have to admit I don’t always think about it before I put pen to paper. I see a scene or hear some dialogue in my head, and I just barrel forward full-steam ahead! Get those words on paper! Quick, before they fly away!
But rushing it often means you have to go back and add those little things to make the characters pop. Why? Why add traits and characteristics to make a reader feel like he or she *knows* the character?
We’ve all read books with characters we can’t relate to. Sure, you might be able to still enjoy the book for the plot, but without relatable characters, the reader won’t be able to put themselves into the story. For children, I think this is particularly important. None of our kids are ever going to go to Hogwarts…but Harry Potter and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and the rest of the wizarding world is so completely relatable. We all FEEL like we know exactly who they are, and what they are experiencing.
Any sort of story, from picture book to epic novel, needs characters to whom the reader can relate. Even if it’s a tiny fairy or a goblin—every character needs to have a character trait that makes the reader empathize.
On the other hand
A character TOO much like us can be boring. You need to add surprising details, too. Things that the reader doesn’t expect. It can be something like a magical power or a lightning shaped scar or it can be something like a propensity for chewing gum or big ears.
Think about these characters:
• A princess who laughs like a donkey
• A mouse who thinks he’s a knight
• A sweet old granny, who’s really a fairy tale detective
• An expert thief who’s blind
• A fairy who can’t fly
The last one is mine. 🙂
Do you recognize any of these characters from famous middle grade novels? All of these them are relatable. They all have characteristics like you and me. They ALSO all have some unique quality that sets them apart and makes them interesting.
Think about my second example. It’s Despereaux, from Kate DeCamillo’s THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX. I think the tiny mouse is very relatable as a personality. But he also has something that sets him apart: his dedication, bravery, and willingness to risk it all to save the princess. He’s not just any knight. He’s a mouse.
This something that you add to your character might be a plot point or it might not be. The key is finding character traits that make your character relatable AND something that sets the character apart from the mundane.
Once you have an idea of your character’s unique character trait(s), you can use those to start crafting dialogue. How would your character speak? How would they react to a certain situation? Believable dialogue is going to make the character feel authentic.
My last tip—and it feels like an add-on, but it’s important—is to use the five senses to create a time and space in which your character exists. For example, don’t tell me she walked into a room that smells bad. Show me how she walked into the room, and what she smelled.
An exercise I often do with kids groups is to have them brainstorm a list of things that smell bad—we can usually generate 25 or 30 different smells. None of these bad smells are the same. If you don’t give your reader some direction, they might imagine burning toast, when you really mean sulphur.
So, to sum up…
- Find something relatable about your character
- Add a unique characteristic to your character to set them apart from the mundane
- Make the dialogue authentic to whatever those characteristics are
- Place your character in their environment and show the action, using the five senses to give the reader a very descriptive experience.
Kristine Asselin is the author of fourteen children’s books for the elementary school library market. She began her writing career penning short stories for her daughter before transitioning to writing a wide variety of nonfiction topics for elementary grades as well as young adult fiction and middle grade fantasy. Kris had the honor of directing the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI New England) regional conference in 2014. Her debut novel, ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT, comes out from Bloomsbury Spark in late fall 2014.