Writing Creative Characters Kids Will Love
All readers like to read about characters they can identify with and children are no exception. What is identification? It is feeling that we have something in common with the characters we're reading about. We want to feel that a character is not some kind of superhuman who never makes mistakes but a real person, with dreams, flaws, and feelings.
Say you write a story about a boy confronted by bullies on the playground. What goes through his mind as they threaten him? Does he feel no fear because he knows he has a black belt in Karate and can whip them all with his little finger? Or does he feel afraid and unsure? Does he think about running but then decide not to because he knows he will never be able to face these bullies or himself again? Which situation is more believable? Which do you think would interest the average child more? A child who sees herself in a story situation will come to care about the story's main character.
Our goal as writers should be to create characters who are real like us, with doubts and fears, but the second half of the identification equation is giving the reader a character he or she can admire. In the example above, when the boy decides to stand up to the bullies despite his fears, the reader feels admiration for him. The reader has the chance to hope that he would also do the courageous thing if he were put in the same situation. He will want to read more about this character and to be like him if he can.
Kids also identify with likeable characters. If the main character of a story you write is stuck up and selfish, readers won't feel anything in common with her (or at least they won't want to) and as a result they won't care about her. If you create a character who is kind to others and tries to do her best in the world, readers will come to like and care about her because they see themselves or the type of person they hope to be.
It is generally accepted that kids like to read about kids who are a year or two older than they are. What kid doesn't dream of being bigger and doing the things that bigger kids do? When writing for kids, it's important to focus on an age range. What kinds of issues are important to kids this age? Are boy-girl relations an issue yet? What topics are taboo? Talk to kids of different ages and learn where their heads and hearts are. Talk to teachers and parents you know. Read plenty of stories for your target age group. Once you have a good idea who your reader will be, give her a main character just a little bit older than herself.
Point of View
Whose eyes do we see the stories action through, and who is narrating the story? This element of storytelling is referred to as point of view, or POV for short.
In first person point of view, the narrator is in the story, though he may or may not be the main character, and refers to himself as "I." "One day I woke up to find a unicorn in my closet," a first person story might begin.
Second person POV is rarely used, and should never be used in a children's story. Second person POV refers to the reader as if she were a character in the story: "One day, you wake up to find a unicorn in your closet." Second person viewpoint is used in experimental and avante-garde stories for adults, but would likely take a kid's mind right out of a story and make him ask you, "what do you mean? There's not a unicorn in my closet, is there?"
In third person POV, the story's narrator is not in the story. The characters are referred to as "he" or "she" instead of "I" or "you." "One morning, Jane awoke to find a unicorn in her closet." Third person point of view can be very intimate with a character's mind, nearly as intimate as first person, when the writer gives the reader a character's thoughts and feelings along with the action, as in the following example:
Third person can also be more distant. The narrator can tell the character's thoughts without speaking in her voice:
"Of all the days that week, Jane wondered why Tuesday had to be the day she woke up to find the unicorn in her closet. She had a math test she wasn't ready for, it was gym day and she hated gym, and on top of that her alarm clock didn't ring."
Third person viewpoint can also be omniscient, in which the reader doesn't see through the eyes of one particular character but of all of them:
"Of all the days that week, Jane wondered why Tuesday had to be the day she woke up to find the unicorn in her closet. When she opened the door, the unicorn looked at her, wondering if she was a nice girl and if she was going to get it something to eat."
Of all the variations of third person viewpoint, a close third, as in the first example, offers the reader the best chance to get to know and thus identify with the character. In your reading, note which point of view technique the writer is using in a given story. How does this choice affect your experience of the character and the story?
Whichever type of viewpoint you adopt in a story, be consistent. If you are telling the story from Jane's point of view, you can't suddenly switch to the unicorn just because you came up with a funny thought for it to have. Jumping viewpoints will pull your readers back from a story, because they will lose the feeling of bonding with your viewpoint character, and remember, our ongoing goal is to keep a reader identifying with the main character at all times.
In longer novels, there can be more than one viewpoint character, and this is often a good way to give a longer story more depth and interest. In this case the point of view is usually switched at a chapter or section break, and not in the middle of a narrative. Chapter 1 can be told from Jane's point of view and Chapter 2 from the unicorn's, but make sure you start Chapter 3 before you switch back to Jane.
And Then What Happened? Plot and the Children's Story
The crucial element that gives a story motion is conflict. This does not have to mean a struggle between two opposing characters, although it can. Within the context of a children's story, conflict takes the form of a problem to be solved or a question to be answered. Giving your characters something to struggle against or strive toward will keep your reader engaged. Will Jenna succeed at making friends in the new school? What is that strange noise and where is it coming from? Without some kind of dramatic tension, a story is merely a "day in the life," the kind of narration you might share with your family about your day at work. While your family may listen politely and nod between bites of mashed potatoes, the editor at your target publisher or children's magazine will likely reject your story and send it back.
Conflict helps the reader get to know the character better. How does she handle this dramatic situation? If she runs from danger, the reader will learn something about the type of character she is. If she swallows hard and stands her ground, the reader will learn something too. The character who thinks of a creative way to solve a problem will win the admiration of readers, and as we discussed above, this is one of the key ways to build identification.
So, the equation to remember is a character (or characters) plus a problem or question equals a dramatic situation. What kinds of dramatic situations are appropriate for children's stories? The best way to determine this is to read published work. As you read, make a habit of distilling the problem into a sentence or two. Here are some examples.
Horton discovers a whole tiny world on a dust speck. To save it from destruction, he must convince others that it exists.
--From Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Seuss
A young pig is destined to become bacon unless his friend the spider can convince the world there is something special about him.
--From Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White
A fish becomes jealous of his friend the frog's experiences on dry land, so he decides to jump out of the water and see the world for himself.
--From "Fish is Fish," by Leo Leonni
Think of problems kids face in real life. Return to the journal you created about your own childhood. What kinds of things did you fear? What situations did you face? Social problems at school? A move to a different city, illness in your family? What kinds of events excited you? The birth of your first sibling? A big trip to the Grand Canyon?
Listen to the children in your life. What problems do they face today that you perhaps didn't? What kinds of problems seem different but are really variations of your own experiences?
Adding adventure to a story is another way to add interest and tension to a story. What if a kid got a chance to go to the Moon? What if a kid was stranded in a shipwreck (as one was in The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley)? What if a younger brother was lost in the snow and there were no parents around to save him? While many of the dramatic situations that power stories for adults, such as romance, murder mystery, horror, and political intrigue, are not appropriate for children, there are plenty of exciting situations young characters can find themselves in, and readers will be happy to read along as they strive to win the day.
As you begin to think of stories you read in terms of the dramatic situations they address, you will find it easier to come up with your own situations. As with every other aspect of writing, be patient with yourself. If your first attempts at creating situations fall short, keep practicing and you will improve.
Show, Don't Tell
If you've read any other books on writing, you've probably heard this bit of advice before, but it bears repeating. Never tell a reader about something when you can show it through action or dialog instead. Your ongoing goal is to make the reader think she is actually experiencing your story and not just reading it. A story with too much telling is more like a newspaper account than a story.
Here is a brief bit of telling, as an example:
Mr. Henson was furious when he saw that she'd broken the crystal vase.
Now, how can we show this to the reader? What does furious look and sound like?
When Mr. Henson saw that she'd broken the vase, his face turned red and his hands balled into meaty fists. "What have you done this time?" he yelled in his booming voice.
Try this as an exercise. Write a sentence like the first one, in which you tell about a character's emotions or reaction. Then rewrite it so you are showing the emotion through description and dialog.
Showing is not something you have to get right the first time. Often, a first draft is full of telling, as you're trying to get the basics of your story down. As we'll discuss later, you are going to be revising your work, so don't get hung up if you find yourself telling too much and showing too little. You can always revise.
Good stories have plenty of action. Your characters should be focused on solving the problem you have set in front of them. If they are trying to find a lost puppy in the woods, they shouldn't stop to have a campfire and tell ghost stories or have a long conversation about one of their teachers at school while they search. Keep things focused on the problem at all times. The stakes should be high enough that your characters feel they must solve the problem. If a younger brother is lost, have your characters need to find him before night comes, or before their parents find out and they get in big trouble, or before the brother is late for an important dose of medicine. Making the stakes high will keep your reader involved and his eyes on the page.
If the stakes are high enough in your story, your characters' emotions, good or bad, will be strong, and this is as it should be. If the story is emotional for the characters, chances are it will be emotional for the reader as well. How can you describe a character's feelings while showing instead of telling? In the example above with Mr. Henson, we see through his expression and the things he says that he is angry. In some cases, though, you will wish to describe a character's emotions when the character is alone and dialog is not an option. The way to do this is by letting the reader hear the character's thoughts. Language is the thing that sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, and the emotions we feel are usually accompanied by words in our heads. Instead of saying "Paul felt lonely and sad," you can take us into Paul's head and let us hear his thoughts:
Paul hung his head and felt his eyes growing moist. Why had he been so mean to Sarah? Now she'd gone home and he had no one to play with. He hadn't meant to hurt her feelings. He should have known she'd be embarrassed about throwing up at school. Why did he have to mention it?
The emotions a character is feeling are crucial to the reader's experience of the story. Sheer description of the physical effects of Paul's emotions ("Paul hung his head and felt his eyes growing moist") doesn't do enough to show us how he feels, but giving us a glimpse into his thoughts tells us all we need to know.
Your characters' efforts to overcome a problem or answer a question can result in either success or failure. Either way, the story's conflict is resolved and the characters can move on with their lives. As you may have guessed, a happy ending, in which the characters successfully solve the problem will generally be more welcomed by the young reader. Horton finally does prove the Whos exist and their world is saved.Charlotte succeeds in making Wilbur so famous that he is saved from being butchered. If the stakes are high enough, the characters' triumph over the problem will be emotionally satisfying. In other cases, characters may triumph over their problem only to realize that this triumph wasn't what they most wanted after all. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max runs away (in his daydreams) from his mean parents who have sent him to bed without any supper. He travels far away to a place where he is a king and no one can send him to bed, but he realizes that he'd rather be back with his own family after all. The best stories incorporate some kind of change in their characters. Max learns the value of his real life by escaping to his fantasy. Horton learns what he can accomplish by sticking to his beliefs. When Wilbur's friend Charlotte dies at the end of Charlotte's Web, Wilbur learns how precious true friendship can be. Giving kids a positive message to take away from your story is an excellent underlying goal in your work. Keeping this message subtle is a challenge that will keep you on your toes for years to come.
Other Narrative Tools
A story can be narrated in the past tense, as if the action already took place. This is by far more common than relating a story in present tense, as if it is unfolding now. To experience the difference, read the following examples:
Past: Through the corner of my eye, I saw something move. I turned to see a mouse scurrying under the refrigerator.
Present: Through the corner of my eye, I see something move. I turn and see a mouse scurrying under the refrigerator.
Past tense narration is the more common of the two, and should be considered your standard form, but don't hesitate to try writing a story or two in present tense. It can deepen the reader's sense that she is experiencing the story right along with the narrator and that like the reader, the narrator doesn't know what is going to happen next. If you don't know which way to go, you can try switching a story to the other tense as you revise to see if this change adds anything to the story's impact.
Another narrative technique that primarily works with past tensenarration is foreshadowing, which is alluding to events that will take place further ahead in the story. This can add interest and intrigue and keep a reader reading to find out what is going to happen:
If I'd known I was going to lose my lunchbox and nearly get myself killed, I never would have gotten out of bed that day.
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